CORVALLIS, ORE. – The road has treated UCLA like a jilted lover the past few years, scornful, bitter, hesitant to return a call.
It was a bit friendlier to the Bruins on Saturday afternoon, UCLA coming out with a 27-19 win over Oregon State to move to 1-0 in Pac-12 play.
But it took Rick Neuheisel a trip to the one forgiving spot in Corvallis – that is the Bruins’ locker room in Reser Stadium – for a crucial coaching mea culpa to lift the Bruins to victory.
Leading 21-3 with 1 minute, 41 seconds left in the first half, UCLA (2-2, 1-0) squandered a drive with poor time management, wasting nearly a minute on two running plays before trying to move the ball downfield. Unable to convert a 3rd-and-1 with 32 seconds left, the Bruins were forced to punt.
Only Neuheisel forgot to convey his intentions to punt it out of bounds and Beaver returner Jordan Poyer corralled a Jeff Locke punt and took it 85 yards for a momentum-swinging touchdown.
Neuheisel marched into the locker room and instead of lambasting his squad, he offered his apology, putting it squarely on his shoulders, asking his players, 30 years his junior, to lift him up, perhaps to save his job.
“We got his back,” middle linebacker Patrick Larimore said. “All the players have his back. Sh*ts going to happen. People are going to make mistakes. He knows that, but for him to say that to us really fired us up. We knew we came out, had a solid first half – we didn’t care, we were gonna come out here and fight for his ass. Fight ’til the end.”
And it did take all 60 minutes, a Sheldon Price breakup of a Sean Mannion pass on 4th-and-8 from the UCLA 22-yard line with 2:12 left in the game finally affording Neuheisel a breath.
The Bruins thought they were in cruise control for their first conference-opening win since a Week 1 45-17 win over Stanford in 2007. They were wrong.
The offense stalled in the second half after an impressive first half, three consecutive drives resulting in a missed field goal, a three-and-out and a four-and out before a long touchdown drive gave the Bruins – and Neuheisel – some breathing room.
“I told them, I take full responsibility for the punt return, that’s on me, now you guys gotta pick me up, just like you pick each other up,” Neuheisel said. “And we’re gonna wrestle momentum back from them, and that’s what happened.”
UCLA got the impetus in the first half by capitalizing on Oregon State miscues, particularly those of first-time starting quarterback Sean Mannion. The redshirt freshman committed two turnovers, both leading to Bruin touchdowns, as UCLA built on a 7-3 lead that was spurred by a 62-yard Richard Brehaut-to-Josh Smith completion that set up a Brehaut-to-Taylor Embree 22-yard touchdown connection.
After Mannion was intercepted by Bruin linebacker Sean Westgate on the team’s ensuing possession, UCLA marched 46 yards on the ground, relying on Derrick Coleman after Johnathan Franklin went down with a hip contusion. Coleman had 26 of his 100 yards on the drive before Brehaut scored on a 5-yard run from five yards out, and UCLA added another touchdown less than 30 seconds later after Jordon James took an end-around for four yards into the end zone after a Mannion fumble.
The Bruins finished with 211 rushing yards on the day as Brehaut attempted just 11 passes, completing seven for 146 yards.
“Our gameplan every week has been to pound it,” Neuheisel said. “That’s the identity that we’ve chosen by going to this brand of offense. That doesn’t mean we can’t be explosive.”
As good as UCLA was in the running game, the Bruins were perhaps better in stopping it.
UCLA tackled better than it has all year in holding Oregon State to just 88 rushing yards while pounding the Beavers for six tackles-for-loss.
Senior linebacker Sean Westgate said after the game that the defense took on a new mantra on Saturday as the team had been rather unenthusiastic after big plays the first few weeks.
“The motto today was party,” Westgate said. “Have fun. If you watch our previous games, people would make a big play and there would be one or two guys around him. It was, ‘Survive til next play.’ No, party with them, have fun. Why not enjoy the game you’ve been playing your whole life?”
Neuheisel took it to heart after the game, telling a group of UCLA fans, “Anybody have fun on the flight here? Not as much as you’ll have on the flight home!”
After a rare road conference win – just their third during Neuheisel’s tenure, following a 27-7 win over 0-12 Washington in 2008 and a 43-7 win over 1-11 Washington State in 2010 – they deserved it.
“While it may not have been pretty to a casual observer, to a guy who’s been watching these guys fight and learn how to grow and find ways to win, especially on the road, it was a great, turn-the-page moment,” Neuheisel said. “We haven’t been 1-0 in conference in a long time.”