Forget 11 games, forget more turbulence than a Midwest thunderstorm, forget anything about anything prior to 7 p.m. on Saturday night.
That was UCLA’s plan.
Win the next three hours and win the Pac-12 South division outright, a defiant showing against crosstown rival USC at Los Angeles Coliseum giving both teams identical 6-3 conference records and UCLA the title.
That was UCLA’s plan.
But a 50-0 loss to the Trojans has the Bruins crawling up to Eugene, barely dragging themselves over the state line and into what is expected to be a raucous Autzen Stadium
“We didn’t want to sneak in there because of a technicality, we didn’t want to be an asterisk in the record books,” junior quarterback Kevin Prince said. “We wanted to earn it.”
Instead, UCLA ekes into the conference’s inaugural showcase after suffering its fifth blowout loss of the season, which dropped its record to 6-6.
The mere appearance of the Bruins in what was expected to be a star-studded affair has roundly drawn criticism from across the country. Most had simply thought Utah would defeat heavy underdog Colorado in Salt Lake City on Friday night. Instead, the Utes missed three crucial field goals in a 17-14 loss to the Buffaloes.
National media has taken to Twitter to thrash the Bruins, the Trojans sported “2011 South Division Champion” T-shirts and UCLA will likely be fodder for late-night television by Monday night.
The only thing louder than Autzen Stadium on Friday night might be the backlash on the Bruins championship berth.
“I don’t care what people think,” UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said. “As far as I know, they’re sending a plane to pick us up and we’re gonna get on it.”
Added junior cornerback Andrew Abbott: “It’s basically all or nothing. We didn’t do it (Saturday), so this is it. Lay it all on the line. Let the chips fall where they may.”
The Bruins know the alternative.
This isn’t a poker game, it’s a high-stakes slot machine, with just two results: Either UCLA advances to the Rose Bowl or it becomes bowl ineligible at 6-7, forced to petition the NCAA for a waiver just to appear in a low-level bowl.
This is no $6 jackpot on the line.
“We’re aware of the stakes,” Prince said. “It would’ve been nice to have won this one and not have to worry about the whole petition part of it, and now it’s win or go home, pretty much for us. We have to win to make a dream come true.”
The players are dreaming because their reality is so dire.
Neuheisel made the rounds throughout UCLA locker room on Saturday night to comfort the players, offering pep talks to the more forlorn.
Minutes earlier he had trudged off the Los Angeles Coliseum field surrounded by four police officers, rushing to catch up to junior tight end Joseph Fauria, whose massive shoulders on his 6-foot-8 frame were drooped to about three inches off the ground.
“What the head coach and I discussed was between he and I, but at the same time, it was positive. He’s a positive guy, and right there I kind of needed that, because it it’s difficult walking off that field knowing we left some stuff on there.”
Neuheisel knows because he’s been there.
Four previous times this year, in fact.
The loss to USC was the Bruins’ fifth of more than 25 points.
“If you’re not careful, you can leave a locker room feeling like the coaches feel it’s all the players’ fault,” Neuheisel said. “I think it’s important to realize we’re in this together and that we’re a team and that we share in victory just as we share in defeat.”