There is a hunger lurking in the depths of the UCLA Bruins.
It is a strange feeling, this gnawing in the pit of their stomachs, which sank to further depths last season as they lost five, six, seven and ultimately eight games, their season aborted, a bowl bid becoming only a fleeting whisper.
Likewise, there is a hunger deep down in the hearts of the Temple Owls.
It is a strange feeling, this famine that has spread across three decades, seemingly with no end in sight, 30 years worth of lonesome Decembers, a bowl bid so far in the distance that players could book their flights home during spring ball.
And yet here they stand, the Bruins and the Owls, battling today at 1:30 p.m. in the EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. One program back in the postseason after a one-year drought that felt like an eternity. One program back in the postseason after a 30-year drought that was an eternity.
“Thirty years is a long time, so I understand their hunger and where they’re coming from,” UCLA senior cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “But also, we have high expectations for ourselves and for our program. We’re hungry to establish ourselves again as a team that deserves to be in a bowl every year. “Yeah, they’re very hungry, but I think we’re hungry in a different way.”
The Bruins are starving to get back on the national scene after a 4-8 season in 2008 dropped them even further off the radar. UCLA wasn’t exactly tearing up the top-25 before last season’s crash – with records of 6-7, 6-6, 7-6 and 6-7 surrounding that magical 10-2 run in 2005.
But the great fall of ’08 was heartbreaking.
“I was hurt all last year, so I had been sitting around quite a bit – but to be home, sitting around, being there for Christmas just kind of had a weird feel to it,” UCLA senior tight end Logan Paulsen said. “An uncomfortable feeling, like I should be doing something else. Then you watch all this football, all these bowl games, and that was tough. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back.”
But, as UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel has reminded his team constantly, just getting to the postseason won’t suffice.
At 6-6, the Bruins have a chance at their first winning season since 2006, though they’ll have to shut down the nation’s No. 23 running game to do so.
With freshman sensation Bernard Pierce leading the way, the Owls racked up nine straight wins and a 7-1 record in Mid-American Conference play. Pierce had 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns for Temple, guiding a moribund team from the brink of collapse, as the Owls finished 1-11 just three years ago.
Under head coach Al Golden – who interviewed for the UCLA head gig that eventually went to Neuheisel – there has been steady progress, however.
From that 1-11 first year, which included back-to-back 62-0 losses, to 4-8 in 2007 to 5-7 in 2008, Temple has built its way toward respectability.
The Bruins are attempting to do the same, though they never fell quite as far as the Owls.
“In some sense, we’re a team that’s up-and-coming as well,” Neuheisel said. “We’re rebuilding and trying to climb back to a place where we are on the national scene. UCLA has enjoyed that in the past. Winning a bowl game in a nationally televised event would be a step in the right direction.
“I don’t think you’re looking at one is have and one a have not.”
Certainly the Bruins are not resting on their laurels.
Not after a 6-6 season that included a three-game winning streak to begin the season and a five-game losing streak that followed. Not with an offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince that ranked 88th nationally in total offense, 98th in rushing and 52nd in passing.
There is far more work to be done in Westwood, these young Bruins understand, and it starts today.
“They’re hungry to get back to the national scene,” Golden said. “Their hunger, as a program that’s been to 11 bowl games in 13 years, is to use this as a springboard back to the national scene. Ours is to get this to get to a point where this becomes commonplace. That’s the difference – they have a chance to be a national power, and we’re trying to just become a bowl team.”
Only one thing is certain.
After today, either the famished Owls or the starving Bruins will hunger no more.