UCLA Football At Midseason: Static Without Electricity

The first six games have gone as expected. We hand out some awards and look ahead to the next six.

As I swirl my cognac snifter and peer through my monocle at UCLA's football season to date, the descriptor that leaps to mind is inconclusive. Halfway in, the questions whose answers will shape the future of the program remain open. Can Rick Neuheisel cook up enough on-field success to ensure his continued employment? Maybe, maybe not. At 3-3, his team hasn't collapsed, but neither does it resemble a rising power. Is the Pistol offense potent enough to cover for a classically terrible UCLA defense? So far it's been productive, if a bit plodding. Is there enough improvement overall to suggest the Bruins might end their four-game losing streak to USC? The Magic 8-Ball says... ask again later.

To understand the arc of the season, you need only know this: there have been no upsets. The Brus have been favored in three games (San Jose State, Oregon State and Washington State) and won them all. They've been underdogs in three games (Houston, Texas and Stanford) and lost them all. They're winning and losing exactly when they're supposed to, providing a steady diet of stasis and adequacy. That's not hugely rousing, but there are worse things than stasis, as Mike Stoops will be not very happy to tell you.

What might keep the S.S. Neuheisel afloat into next year is the ease of the schedule. Three of the six remaining games are against teams in advanced states of ruin: Arizona (just fired coach, has lost 10 straight to FBS opponents), Utah (0-3 in conference, just lost first-string quarterback Jordan Wynn to season-ending injury) and Colorado (straight rubbish). A fourth game is at home against Cal, who's treading the same middle waters as UCLA. Oregon is avoided altogether. So Neuheisel could scrape together his seven wins just by running the table in games his team is favored. In that scenario, an upset of Arizona State or USC would be gravy on the cake.

Right, so here are some people, things and events from the first half that deserve recognition, along with a couple peeks ahead.

Most Pleasant Surprise: TE Joseph Fauria
A transfer from Notre Dame, Fauria caught only three balls last year and began the season behind Cory Harkey in the tight-end pecking order. In the first two games, though, he snagged two touchdown passes and announced himself as UCLA's most fearsome scoring threat. He's got very good hands. At six-foot-eight, he's got height and knows how to use it. He's the one Bruin no opponent can guard, which makes it all the more enraging that his quarterbacks so often don't look for him.

Biggest Disappointment: Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey
He's been on the job only six games, I get it. But the UCLA defense returned eight starters and some feisty, promising reserves just waiting to be taken off the leash. This should've been the year the D started controlling games. Instead it's looked passive and poorly drilled. It generates no pass rush, the coverage is soft and the blitzes are somehow both rare and predictable. A good first step would be getting the right guys (Seali'I Epenesa, Erik Kendricks) on the field more.

Offensive MVP: C Kai Maiava
Solid offensive-line play has been a constant this season. After years of injuries, suspensions and shifting lineups, the front five has enjoyed some stability and cohered into an effective unit. Every Saturday the senior Maiava leads with polish and toughness.

Defensive MVP: CB Aaron Hester
For this one the field of candidates is sparse. Except for Kendricks, no one on the defense has been a difference-maker, and he doesn't see enough snaps to qualify for this made-up award. Hester has been fine. Sheldon Price has missed time with injury, leaving Hester to cover the opponent's best receivers. Under the circumstances (which is to say, without the benefit of teammates who pressure the QB) he's held up quite well.

Special Teams MVP: P Jeff Locke
By default, it's Locke. At times the special teams have been eye-poppingly bad. There have been crushing, ill-timed mistakes in the placekicking and return games. Locke's punting is the only special-teams function that doesn't make Bruin fans instinctively clench.

Most Important Game of the Second Half: at USC (November 26)
Yeah obviously, but even more so than usual this year. The outcome of the Cross-Town Rivalry could well determine whether UCLA plays in a bowl game and whether Neuheisel gets pink-slipped. As Ted Miller of ESPN observed on Wednesday, beating USC to get to 6-6 probably keeps Neuheisel his gig, while losing to USC to get to 6-6 probably gets him fired. Not only because everyone's sick of losing to USC as a general matter but also because the Trojans look like a flawed team the Bruins could reasonably hope to take down.

Second-Half Storyline to Follow: The (Likely) Arrival of QB Brett Hundley
Hundley, as you likely know, is the true-freshman super recruit from Arizona and a frightening run-pass threat. He has yet to appear in a game, as the plan all along has been to redshirt him this year. But against Washington State, first-stringer Richard Brehaut broke his leg, a really unfortunate thing that moved everybody up one level on the depth-chart conveyor belt. Kevin Price is about to begin his third or fourth non-consecutive term as starter. Hundley is the new backup.

Prince is not a terrible or even deeply below-average QB. He has guts, some wheels and toughness. He can't, though, be counted on to stay in one piece or avoid the drive-killing mistake. At some point, because of performance or health, it'll become necessary to break the seal on Hundley, and even if it's just emergency duty at first, once it's clear what he can do temptation will build to make him the starter. He could be the key to whether the season is ultimately judged a success. It would be best not to need him, but if you absolutely have to use him, you might as well turn him loose.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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