To hear the lovefest going on between the UCLA Bruins and Temple Owls, you’d think George Halas was squaring off against Vince Lombardi, that they’d be coaching Emmitt Smith and Johnny Unitas versus Lawrence Taylor and Deion Sanders, that their EagleBank Bowl matchup on Tuesday pitted the top two teams in football history.
What UCLA forgets, though, is that the Owls, despite nine wins, played a Mid-American Conference schedule loaded with more cupcakes than a bakery.
What Temple forgets, though, is that UCLA, despite playing a slate that included seven bowl teams and six teams ranked in the Top-25 in the season, lost all six by a combined 174-91.
Still, the respect is palpable.
“I’m not very familiar with Pac-10 teams, but we watched them on film, and they’re probably the best defense we’ve faced all year,” said Temple tight end Steve Maneri. “Hungry is not even the word. They’ve got guys who run all over the field. They’re talented, a lot of guys who are going to play on Sundays.”
The wait wasn’t long, but it was a tough one.
Lazeric Jones returned from his visit to UCLA early last week and Bruin fans scoured the message boards waiting for his commitment. He talked about how much he enjoyed the trip, made the obligatory comments about talking it over with his family, and said he was very interested in UCLA.
But he didn’t commit.
Now, he has.
The Logan (Ill.) Junior College point guard, whom many consider the No. 1 JC PG in the country, verbally committed to UCLA on Sunday, a welcome addition to a team that desperately needs young point guards.
“Coming home and talking to my family about my trip, I really liked the coaching staff,” Jones said. “I have a chance to grow up with the team. This is a young team, and I see that the player do have a tremendous amount of talent, but they’re just growing up. With me coming in, I can try to build with the team.”
For a team that lives in the sunny confines of Southern California, the nagging inquiries about the weather can become frustrating.
Now that the Bruins have practiced in the cold, though, the talk should die down.
If not, Rick Neuheisel has an answer.
“We had a game earlier this year in Pullman, Wash,” Neuheisel said. “When we were driving in, it was snowing. There was a lot of question whether we’d be able to handle the weather. We had our team meeting where it was snowing on us. We were out there and the weather didn’t affect the next day. That’s going to be the last of our worries. It’s a long way from home, but for a bowl game, that’s exciting.”
Forget the watches and the gift bags and the little trinkets that players earn when they arrive for a bowl game.
The real reward is not in the arrival, but in the travel.
“Everybody talks about the bowl gifts you get, but a big gift this bowl gives us is the fact we get to see Washington, D.C,” UCLA senior tight end Logan Paulsen said. “To be here, to see the city, is so exciting and so rewarding. A lot of guys wouldn’t have this opportunity if not for the bowl. It’s huge to be here and to see what the city has to offer.”
The Bruins have a heavy schedule, with planned visits to the National Mall and monuments, the Walter Reed Military Hospital, the US Capitol and more.
Al Golden has had to be one part strategist, one part motivator for his rising Owls this season.
But when they’ve stepped up their competition – such as in their 31-6 loss to Penn State in Week 2 – Golden has also had to massage some egos.
Now as Temple prepares for UCLA, which faced seven bowl teams and six top-25 squads, he is reminding his players about the tough task ahead.
“For us, it’s going to be about feeling confident and competing every snap,” Golden said. “When we’ve stepped up into this level, we never really felt like we were comfortable. When we stepped up our level of play to a BCS program with this kind of tradition … for us, it’s going to be, ‘Hey, make sure you feel confident, like you belong. Make sure you’re ready for this from the get-go.’ When you play teams like this, if you’re not ready from the get-go, it can be over by the half. When you play in this game, you have to feel like you belong.”
As Saturday’s practice wound down and the players hurried to the sidelines for sprints, Neuheisel gave his players one chance to even things out with the coaching staff.
The Bruins were allowed to pack and throw one snowball from the sidelines at the coaches, who were huddled within the hash marks. Strength and conditioning coach Mike Linn got the brunt of the flurry, catching a “sniper shot,” as he called it,” in the leg.
At the end of practice, Neuheisel warned his players not to make any bad moves while they’re on the trip, lest the trip end early for them.
“It’s always national news when kids make poor decisions on bowl trips and have to be sent home,” Neuheisel said. “I’m just making sure that the guys understand that while I don’t want to, I will, if guys don’t do the right thing.”
The question was, how would the cold affect Kevin Prince’s throwing shoulder?
UCLA’s redshirt freshman quarterback sprained his AC joint in his right shoulder against USC on Nov. 28 and has been working toward full recovery for the last few weeks. Nagged by discomfort, his progress was slow and steady, but that was in the relative warmth of Westwood.
Now he’s in the cold of Washington, D.C., as the Bruins prepare for their EagleBank Bowl matchup on Tuesday with Temple.
The answer, at least from him after Saturday’s practice – UCLA’s first on the east coast – was to be expected.
He says he’s good to go.
“It’s the best it’s been,” said Prince, who threw for 1,829 yards and six touchdowns in nine starts this year. “A couple days off for rest helped a lot, and hopefully it will continue to keep up like that. We don’t have all the resources that we have back at home in terms of treatment, but I think they’ll be able to maintain it enough for me to be fine without it hurting.”