Bruins hope to turn mirage into oasis


Smack in the middle of the arid Arizona desert stands a mirage, an optical illusion that has made the national college football conscience dismiss the Wildcats as an afterthought and the Arizona administration dismiss Mike Stoops just the same.

The Wildcats may be 1-5, may be coming off a shocking 37-27 loss to woeful Oregon State that eventually resulted in Stoops’ firing, may be reeling from a defense ranked among the worst in the country, but UCLA isn’t buying it.

As the Bruins prepare to travel to Tucson for a pivotal marquee contest, a nationally televised 6 p.m. tilt at Arizona Stadium that could very well determine their ultimate December destination, they know full well the gauntlet that the Wildcats have traversed, a murderer’s row, as Rick Neuheisel called it.

While the Bruins are 3-3, having beefed up their record with wins over San Jose State, Oregon State and Washington State, the Wildcats have fallen off considerably after losses to No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 6 Stanford, No. 10 Oregon and USC.

“They’re a much better team than their record would indicate,” Neuheisel said. “If you stop to analyze who they’ve played over the last 11 games, it’s a murderer’s row. They’ve put up a lot of points and lost a lot of close games. There’s not a game that they weren’t in at some point. That’s a proud program and a bunch of kids that have great character. It’s going to be a whale of a ball game.”

First step for UCLA: harpoon Nick Foles.

The Arizona quarterback ranks second in the country at 375.8 passing yards per game, with 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions. While the Bruins have just one player with more than 200 yards receiving – wide receiver Nelson Rosario has 480 yards on 26 catches – the Wildcats have six, led by Dan Buckner’s 487 yards on 33 receptions.

Foles missed last season’s matchup between the conference rivals with a sprained knee, but Arizona did not miss a beat, with backup Matt Scott accounting for 390 yards of offense in a 29-21 win at the Rose Bowl, the Wildcats last win over an FBS opponent.

Foles, who broke Westlake High (Texas) passing yards and touchdowns records once held by Drew Brees, could find similar success against a UCLA defense that currently ranks 95th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

“I don’t know if there’s anything specific with him; he’s a good QB, gets the ball out of his hand fast,” senior linebacker Sean Westgate said. “We have to hope our coverage is strong enough to give our defensive line enough time to get some pressure on this guy. Without getting pressure in his face, if we let him sit back there and throw the ball, we’re not going to have success against him.”

Second step for UCLA: match Arizona’s intensity.

The Wildcats are sure to be a motivated bunch, fresh off Stoops’ firing early last week, a dismissal that surprised many despite the team’s struggles. Defensive coordinator Tim Kish took over as interim head coach and immediately shifted some things around, switching kicker Alex Zendejas for John Bonano – the Wildcats’ third kicker this year, matching UCLA – and adjusted some of the coaches’ responsibilities.

“I think for sure they’re going to come out with a lot of new energy,” middle linebacker Patrick Larimore said. “When Coach Dorrell was fired, there was a lot of energy around UCLA, a lot of new life. Guys thought they’d get a new look to play. That’s what they’re going through, and they’re going to come out fired up.”

Third step for UCLA: rise to the occasion.

UCLA has been dreadful in marquee games during Neuheisel’s regime, just 1-4 in mid-week games and 0-2 on Thursday nights, both defeats coming last year, to Oregon and Washington by a combined score of 84-20.

“Playing on Thursday night always adds pressure,” Larimore said. “It’s hard to play on Thursday nights, especially for us in the past. Looking at the upcoming schedule definitely adds emphasis to this game, too. We’re not treating it like any other game.”

Added Neuheisel: “You like to put on your best when people are watching. It’s one of those games in that time slot where it’s kind of the only game in town. When people are channel surfing, we want them to say, ‘Hey, look at the Bruins. They’ve improved.’ This is our opportunity to get that message across.”