When his Bruins play Texas at the Rose Bowl this Saturday, it'll be the most important game of Rick Neuheisel's UCLA coaching career... until next Saturday, when the Brus' visit to Oregon State will become the most important. Such is the pressurized work environment Neuheisel finds himself in these days. Now in his fourth year atop the wobbly, swaying edifice known as the UCLA football program, Neuheisel is auditioning for a fifth on a week-to-week basis. He probably needs at least seven wins to justify his continued employment in Westwood, and judging from his squad's performance in the season's first two games, the gripping race to the 7-5 pylon will be tight the whole way.
Early in Neuheisel's reign, it was both easy and correct to excuse the piled-up losses. Karl Dorrell bequeathed to him a roster shockingly low on talent, and at the time USC had SoCal recruiting on full lockdown. A bizarre run of injuries, spanning multiple seasons, savaged the depth chart, not least at quarterback and on the offensive line. In the face of these headwinds, there probably aren't many coaches (though there are some) who could've done appreciably better than the 15-22 record Neuheisel rang up in his first three years. And in spite of the on-field struggles, he's restored a long-absent verve to UCLA recruiting. All that's to his credit.
Still, even at UCLA, where fans have grown inured to seventh-place conference finishes, results eventually matter. The team is now healthy, experienced and stocked top-to-bottom with guys handpicked by Neuheisel and blessed by recruiting services. Once-mitigating circumstances are gone. There's no longer any obvious reason why UCLA shouldn't be able to stand toe to toe with a super A-list program like Texas.
But early-season results have been troubling indeed. The fun began with a 34 to 38 loss at Houston, highlights of which you can look forward to watching if Case Keenum makes it to New York as a Heisman finalist. Next up was a 10-point win over San Jose State that if anything felt like a step backward. A truly awful team with a 54-point loss to Stanford already under its belt, SJSU entered the fourth quarter tied with the Bruins at 17. What's striking is how few observers seemed surprised by this. It's UCLA football... this sort of thing happens all the time.
However foreseeable the mediocrity, fewer and fewer people seem willing to pay for it. Attendance for the SJSU debacle was the second-lowest since UCLA moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982. In a post that's amusing and sad in equal measures, Bruins Nation catalogued the distracted indifference that seeped through the home crowd. Some people read magazines the entire game. More than a few took to the Rose Bowl smoking section for some halftime weed. And really, who can blame them? Everyone exposed to that game was made to feel just a wee bit worse about their choices in life.
Texas might be just what we need to refill our joie de vivre tanks. Historically the Longhorns have been a dependable supplier of "WTF?" Bruin victories. Last year a 1-2 UCLA team stumbled into Austin to face the seventh-ranked Horns and swaggered out with a 34 to 12 win. I can't really explain that still-perplexing outcome, but I do remember how Greg Davis, then the Texas offensive coordinator, seemed incapable of calling anything but three-yard out patterns. He was keel-hauled in the offseason, and the attack is now in the hands of co-coordinators Major Applewhite and Bryan Harsin. There's likewise a new defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, who took over from Will Muschamp. Despite presiding over the only defense ever to look baffled by the UCLA pistol attack, Muschamp was given the head gig at Florida.
For utter science-fictioney strangeness, though, the 2010 contest has nothing, nothing, on 1997. Texas had won the first-ever Big 12 title the previous year and was ranked 11th when it hosted 0-2 UCLA on September 13. Eight Longhorn turnovers and five Cade McNown touchdown bombs later, Texas was in rubble: 66 to 3 was the incomprehensible final score. "Rout 66" quickly entered the Bruin lingua franca. As the first of 18 straight wins (including another victory over Texas the following year in Pasadena), that astonishing game inaugurated the last great era in UCLA football. It also set in motion a regime change in Austin. Out went John Mackovic, in came Mack Brown.
Over at Texas site Barking Carnival, author and Longhorn fan Scipio Tex writes of how the Bruins always seem to catch the Horns at their most vulnerable:
UCLA is the neighbor watering their front yard at 3:00 a.m. when you skid into your garbage cans and step out of your car cursing as a Jim Beam bottle rolls onto the driveway. They're the hotel maid who repeatedly screams, "EEZZZZ HOUUUUZZZZZZ KEEEEEPINGGG!" at 7:00 am on New Years Day. They're the UPS guy ringing your doorbell on Friday at 5:30 pm just as you're settling on to the upstairs toilet with Game of Thrones. They have a knack for this.
In this instance, UCLA is catching Texas at a moment of grave QB agita. Mack Brown has busted onetime golden boy Garrett Gilbert down to third string on account of being not very good. Taking snaps in his place are true freshmen David Ash and Case McCoy. Case, of course, is the younger brother of former Bruin hoops star Jelani McCoy.
Not that the quarterback position is any more settled on the Bruins' side of the field. Kevin Prince started against Houston but got hurt. In relief Richard Brehaut performed splendidly and nearly pulled off the comeback. Brehaut then started against San Jose State and with his play inspired those in attendance to read magazines and smoke semi-legal herbs. Neuheisel's not saying who'll start on Saturday, but Prince is supposedly healthy again, and in any event he's the guy who quarterbacked the blowout in Austin last year.
Add it all up and we're guaranteed to see at least three different QB's in this one. If Prince reinjures himself, which would surprise nobody, Brehaut would make it four. With Gilbert on hand as the most experienced third-stringer in history and UCLA freshman Brett Hundley available to Neuheisel as a gadget-play/short-yardage option, there's an outside chance we could see five.
After Saturday, UCLA and Texas have no further games scheduled against each other. (Next season Nebraska segues in as the Brus' designated out-of-conference heavyweight.) But it might not be long before the Horns are back in town. The Big 12 is decomposing, and when everything starts breaking loose most people expect the Pac-12 to snarf up Oklahoma and Oklahoma State or at least make a spirited bid to do so. If that happens and if Larry Scott can engineer a revenue-sharing solution to the Longhorn Network, Texas (with coattail-riding Texas Tech) could make it the Pac-16.
In which case, the Horns can keep trying to avenge Rout 66, year after year until they get it right.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.