UCLA tries to extend its stay atop Pac-12 South
Nelson Rosario only has to look across UCLA's practice fields to Pauley Pavilion to be reminded how the Bruins should handle their unlikely lead in the Pac-12 South.
The venerated on-campus basketball arena is undergoing a major expansion, with scaffolding and new walls rising around it almost every day this fall while the Bruins practiced a few feet away.
''We're still fighting like we're underdogs,'' said Rosario, UCLA's leading receiver with 40 catches. ''We're still out here with a construction worker's mindset, that we're still building something. We know it can flip just like that, so we're still out here working hard.''
Indeed, UCLA (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) has spent too much time near the bottom of the conference standings to get much enjoyment out of the Bruins' improbable rise to the top. They're hoping to hang on to this tangible sign of progress for another week - but with a weak effort in Saturday's visit to Utah, the Bruins would be right back in a scrap to gain mere bowl eligibility.
''I heard we're still an eight-point underdog against Utah this week, is that true?'' Rosario asked. ''Yeah, that's just more incentive to practice hard, rally and grind.''
Even the Bruins are a bit surprised to be in control of their destiny for a berth in the first Pac-12 championship game with three weeks to go. They earned the right with last week's 29-28 win over nationally ranked Arizona State, persevering through the tense final minutes for their first back-to-back victories in over a year.
UCLA has little trouble resisting any impulse to enjoy a little bit of success for a bunch that's been thoroughly humbled by four mostly unimpressive seasons.
''It's a very exciting position to be in,'' quarterback Kevin Prince said. ''To go through the turbulence that we have this year and be in the position to finish first in the Pac-12 South is huge, but we can't afford to look ahead too far.''
The Bruins have experienced little but doom and disappointment during most of coach Rick Neuheisel's tenure, never finishing higher than eighth in the league rankings during his first three years. They've already exceeded their conference victories total in any of Neuheisel's previous seasons at a school that hasn't won a conference title since 1998.
UCLA emerged on top with back-to-back victories over California and Arizona State at the Rose Bowl, but both games were close going into the fourth quarter. The Bruins hung on with steady play from Prince, the oft-injured junior who has played two of his best games after regaining the starting job he lost to Richard Brehaut last month.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Bruins' mini winning streak is what preceded it. Winless Arizona routed UCLA on national television two weeks earlier in a 48-12 victory that had many alumni calling for Neuheisel to be fired immediately, a prospect immediately dismissed by athletic director Dan Guerrero.
''When you get embarrassed the way we got embarrassed in Arizona, if you have any pride in yourself, then you come out that next game and do something about it,'' said Mike Johnson, the Bruins' new offensive coordinator. ''It shouldn't take getting embarrassed to do that, but sometimes it does.''
UCLA's misfiring pistol offense has been downright potent in the past two weeks, with Prince turning in two straight remarkable games with 224 yards rushing. Rosario's steady play kept the Cal defense honest while four of his fellow receivers were suspended, and tailbacks Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin have remained among the nation's top duos.
Yet UCLA readily acknowledges its hold on the top spot is tenuous.
The Bruins are even in the loss column with the Sun Devils, who have an easier remaining schedule on paper, meeting Cal, Arizona and Washington State. Even if the Bruins get past Utah and a home finale against lowly Colorado, they finish the season against archrival Southern California in the Coliseum. USC also has two conference losses, but the Trojans are finishing up their two-season NCAA ban on postseason play.
Although Neuheisel's future will be a topic of debate in Westwood even if the Bruins win out, UCLA could cement its return to competence with a win at Utah - and though they're still a work in progress, the Bruins are starting to believe they've got a chance to get something special going.
''This is a big game, because if we lose, we lose control of the Pac-12 South,'' Rosario said. ''We're going to approach it just like any big game where we're being challenged. Like Coach Neuheisel said, our courage is being checked.''