They are coming off a 50-0 loss to their despised cross-town rival USC … their coach has just been fired … and now they head to Autzen Stadium, louder than a henhouse at feeding time, for a Pac-12 Conference championship game in which they are expected to be throttled.
And yet there is almost an eerie calm among UCLA football players.
Despite more turmoil inside the program than a Colombian soap opera, the Bruins are paying no heed.
They may be more than four-touchdown underdogs against Oregon, No. 8 team in the country, but so what? There is a game to play, and it is a welcomed reprieve, a three-hour block on what is supposed to be a frigid Friday night, a brief slice of the week in which nothing else matters besides the guy in front of you, though with the Ducks frantic pace, he might already have blown by.
“Towards the end of the year, with school and everything – and especially this year, with the highs and lows and coach Neuheisel getting let go – I’m really thankful I have a game on Friday just to get rid of all the other BS,” junior middle linebacker Patrick Larimore said. “There’s a ton of it.”
Mired in a coaching quagmire – with interim head coach, and soon-to-be-former offensive coordinator, Mike Johnson taking over for Neuheisel following the game – and muddied by the recent walloping by the Trojans, the game is nothing if not a relief to the players.
Even if Oregon is trying to ruin their fun.
And the Ducks have surely trashed a lot of dreams this season, piling up touchdowns like logs on a fire, as their 45.9 points per game rank third in the country. With a host of offensive stars and a rhythm only rivaled by Kool and the Gang, the Ducks are going to try to pounce on UCLA much as they did last season in a Week 6 matchup, which Oregon won at Autzen Stadium, 60-13.
“They don’t do a heck of a lot of things; what they do, they do well,” UCLA defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. “The whole key to their tempo is they get people misaligned six, seven times a game, and all of a sudden it’s, ‘Bam, there’s a 30-yard gain,’ then, ‘Bam, a 25-yard gain.
“It’s imperative to get lined up first and foremost and once you’re lined up, now you have a chance.”
Larimore, who suffered a shoulder injury against Oregon and missed the rest of the year, likened UCLA’s defensive gameplan as dancing with the Ducks.
But with Darron Thomas and LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, the Bruins better be afraid to let Oregon take the lead.
“It’s about dancing with them – you watch teams that slow them down, and they just kind of mirror them and try to get off the field eventually,” Larimore said. “If you try to attack, somebody is going to miss a tackle in space, something is going to break. There’s just too much speed and too much field.”
UCLA found that out the hard way last season, and problems were compounded by an offense that continually stepped on its own feet.
With junior quarterback Richard Brehaut in just his second career start, UCLA was outgained 582-290, despite maintaining a 17-minute advantage in time of possession over the quick-strike Oregon attack.
This year, with junior Kevin Prince retaking the reins, it’s no time for the Bruins to be wallflowers.
If Oregon wants to dance, let’s dance.
“The point spread is 30-something points? Whatever,” Prince said. “It is what it is. We’re going to go up there and have fun. We’re going to go up there and play loose. We know we can’t go out there and be tight because we’re playing in Autzen in the first Pac-12 championship against a great team in Oregon.”
With a bowl bid wrapped up by way of an NCAA waiver even if the team is to lose – and a Rose Bowl berth in the offing if they somehow find a way to win – UCLA is hoping to play with reckless abandon. For Neuheisel, at least, there is no tomorrow, and the players and coaches know that. It made preparation for the game a relatively stress-free affair.
Let everyone else worry, for once.
“If you look at it right now, what are there, six teams in each division?” Tresey asked. “Well, there are five teams that wish they were playing tonight.”