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If Bruins are worried, you can't tell
The UCLA football team’s flight here arrived hours late on Thursday, leading some to wonder whether:
a) Conference commissioner Larry Scott invoked his “in the best interests of football (and TV ratings)” clause and allowed USC to play in the inaugural Pac-12 title game.
b) The Bruins, after losing 50-0 to the Trojans on Saturday, would fail to show up for the second consecutive week.
c) Recently fired coach Rick Neuheisel commandeered the plane and, just like the program he has run for the past four years, could not get it off the ground.
Officially, the reason for the delay was strong winds in the Los Angeles area, which might be looked upon as good preparation for the Bruins, who as 32-point underdogs will find themselves running into something much stronger than a headwind — the potent offense of No. 8 Oregon.
The winner will go to the Rose Bowl, even if it is the 6-6 Bruins, who have lost five games by at least 25 points and who will be playing their final game under Neuheisel, who was axed Monday.
The Bruins aren’t the only ones with a tough task. It will be just as hard for the fans to drum up enthusiasm for the title game, which seemed like a good idea until USC was hit with sanctions, Arizona State collapsed late in the season (a rite of autumn) and Utah went belly-up against Colorado last week.
That handed the title to UCLA.
As storylines go, it’s Ducks vs. Lame Duck.
And yet on Thursday, it seemed clear who was having the better week. And it wasn’t Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who groused about having a short week to play such an important game. He was also less than pleased about not being able to practice at Autzen Stadium until Thursday because Pac-12 officials were giving it a makeover, hanging their own sponsors’ banners and painting the field with their own logos and one end zone with UCLA on it.
“I wasn’t consulted, so I don’t care,” Kelly said. “We just want to play the game. What the banners look like and all that stuff, you’re just wasting energy and time — do I like that banner or not like that banner? Don’t bother us.”
Conversely, since Neuheisel was fired Monday morning, there has been a lightness of being about him, and perhaps more purpose in the Bruins’ preparation. Neuheisel said he has been inundated with calls and emails from well-wishers and some players expressing anger over his firing. After the Bruins’ final practice at school Wednesday, the players carried Neuheisel off the field.
“That was something I’ll have forever,” Neuheisel said. “This is a business where you don’t necessarily get to work for instant gratification. You have to work for delayed gratification and create relationships with players. It’s always about trying to push and prod to get them to be not just the best players they can be but the best people they can be. So to be thought of the way I was thought of, at least in that moment, was very rewarding.”
The whirlwind week — with the coach’s firing, the short preparation period and the questions about the Bruins’ worthiness — has had one benefit: It has not allowed the Bruins to wallow over the thumping by USC.
When he walked into an interview room in the Casanova Center, which houses Oregon’s athletic department, Neuheisel was asked whether the past few days have been surreal.
“No question,” Neuheisel said. “I’ve used that word many times this week. Being that UCLA is my alma mater, it’s a definite hard pill to swallow, wanting so desperately to have provided the leadership that can take us back to the throne and falling short. That’s been tough, but I guess almost as a silver lining, I’ve gotten this other stuff to concentrate on. It’s been welcome. I can focus on game plans, I can focus on normal preparations. When it’s all said and done, regardless of the outcome, that’s when it’s going to be a little more (like) 'Wow — what just took place?'”
The Bruins will have more than their hands full with Oregon’s talented backfield triumvirate of LaMichael James — who could be playing his last home game as a Duck — Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. The last time UCLA played the Ducks, they were beaten here 60-13 a year ago.
That beating and the subsequent ones this season have not been enough to rob Neuheisel of his belief. If the result appears inevitable and the embarrassment a matter of degrees, it was hard to tell from the coach’s disposition.
It was as sunny as ever.
“No matter what anybody says and no matter what people say about asterisks or backdoors, when I drove in here tonight, there was a big banner that said UCLA,” Neuheisel said. “That means we’re playing in the Pac-12 championship game, the very first one. How we play tomorrow night is up to us. If they are the kids that I believe they are — and they are; I’ve been through it with them too many times — they’ll respond. Whether it’s good enough, I don’t know. But I know we’ll come through that tunnel tomorrow night ready to play. No one across the country will think there’s only one football team out there.”
That might seem like small consolation, but for the Bruins — and for Neuheisel — you take your victories where you can find them.
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