Rick Neuheisel had allowed himself to dream a little dream. If, as it turned out, being carried off the field by his players in his final practice was merely a dress rehearsal for Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game, the soon-to-be ex-UCLA coach would find athletic director Dan Guerrero afterward and use all his lawyerly persuasions to ask for the chance to coach the team in the Rose Bowl.
"I want to make him tell me no again," Neuheisel said Thursday.
Twenty-four hours later, it was clear there would be no early Christmas miracles for Neuheisel, or for the Bruins, who were trounced — as expected — by Oregon, 49-31, before a typically throaty capacity crowd of 59,376 at Autzen Stadium.
The Bruins took solace in the effort with which they played, while the Ducks took theirs in being able to celebrate in front of their fans a third consecutive conference championship and second trip to the Rose Bowl in three seasons.
But cut through that and the pomp and circumstances, and it was hard to find too many winners in the conference’s initial title game.
Certainly not the Bruins, who played as advertised — like a team that had just gotten its coach fired — fumbling the ball away three times in the first 25 minutes, and with it any chance of a happy ending.
And not the Pac-12, which played the game on a Friday night so it would have the college football stage all to itself. The conference got a game that surely left viewers wondering if they had tuned into Comedy Central.
Never mind that Oregon scored nearly 50 points and rolled up 571 yards. Whatever the Bruins had, it was apparently contagious. Oregon was beset by penalties (a Raiders-like 10 for 120 yards). Quarterback Darron Thomas was scattershot, and when he did put the ball on his receivers’ hands, often enough they dropped it — as Josh Huff did with a wide-open pass in the end zone.
Neither the Ducks offensive nor defensive line did much to move the Bruins off the ball, forcing Oregon to often blitz to create pressure.
It was enough to wonder if Associated Press voters will ask themselves why the Ducks, ranked No. 8, are two spots ahead of USC. The Trojans also have two losses, but won two weeks ago in Eugene, then crushed UCLA 50-0 last week.
Another question concerns the hubris of Oregon coach Chip Kelly, whose decision not to call a timeout in the final minute against USC bit him in the backside. On Friday, Kelly unsuccessfully tried to pass on fourth-and-10 at the UCLA 44 with 18 seconds left in the first half. The incompletion ended up biting him, too, as UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince hit Joseph Fauria for 30 yards, allowing Tyler Gonzalez to kick a 44-yard field goal on the last play of the half. But the bite, it turned out, was with baby teeth.
All it did was cut Oregon’s advantage to 35-17. Against another team, could Kelly have afforded to be so brash?
That will be a question the Ducks and their coach will have to answer over the next month. For all the beating up they’ve done on the rest of the Pac-12 — they are 33-6 (25-2 in conference play) since Kelly became the head coach — the Ducks have not looked so formidable when they have played the best.
They have looked ordinary in losing to Boise State and LSU at the start of seasons, and finishing the last two years with losses to Ohio State and Auburn in BCS games. Now they’ll have another crack at a BCS win, this time in the Rose Bowl against either Michigan State, 13th in the BCS, or No. 15 Wisconsin. (The Spartans and Badgers face off Saturday in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game on FOX.)
"That’s what it’s coming down to — to be an elite team, we’ve got to beat the best elite teams," Oregon safety Eddie Pleasant said. "We’ve been coming close, but close doesn’t count. We’ve got to get it done."
Pleasant frowned about the way the defense played. It was the third time in four games the Ducks have allowed at least 30 points, and they gave up 31 to a team that turned the ball over four times.
"The best way to put it is we’ve got a lot of work to do," Pleasant said.
What seems to be separating the Ducks from everyone else in the Pac-12 — except perhaps USC — was their superb running back, LaMichael James, who in what was likely his last home game at Oregon, carried 25 times for 219 yards and three touchdowns.
The Ducks have plenty of offensive talent, but had to make do without dynamic freshman De’Anthony Thomas, who was drilled early in the game, fumbled and did not return. But James, who passed Marcus Allen for third on the league’s all-time rushing list and sits at 4,923 yards, is a tough inside runner who gets the important yards for Oregon.
Each time the Bruins seemed to garner some hope, the Ducks put the ball in the hands of James. He scored the game’s first touchdown with a 30-yard dash on fourth and 1 in the first quarter, and his five-yard scoring run ended any suspense that might have been building after the Bruins — who were 32-point underdogs — closed within 35-24 in the third quarter.
"We could easily have laid down and given in to everybody’s predictions," said UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore, who returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown to put UCLA on the board. "But I feel like the team, as a whole, played with a lot of energy, a lot of effort."
That, as much as anything else, may signal why UCLA is looking for a new coach. (They have been rebuffed by Boise State’s Chris Petersen, according to published reports.) For the Bruins to give their best effort and be so dominated, something has to change after four years.
The fact that it’s his alma mater is something that will eat at Neuheisel, who played catch on the field with his sons before the game. He acknowledged wanting to make the moments last, hoping the Bruins would somehow find a way to win and he would somehow find a way to convince Guerrero to change his mind and let him coach in the Rose Bowl.
After meeting with his players, Neuheisel emerged from the locker room and was greeted warmly by fans at a stadium where he once was loathed, his image on the scoreboard preceding a clip of people vomiting.
Several hands reached down from the stands to shake Neuheisel’s, and tears began to well in his eyes as he answered questions.
"I’m really, really attached to those kids," Neuheisel said. "They can take my job, but they can’t take those guys away from me."