UCLA football's empty bandwagon lurches northward this weekend, belching fumes and spreading its whiff of pointlessness across state lines. The first stop on the trip is Corvallis, Oregon, where the Bruins will face the Oregon State Beavers for both teams' first-ever Pac-12 game. Then, a week from Saturday, the Brus visit Palo Alto for a cover-your-eyes matchup with fifth-ranked Stanford. UCLA has just one win against two losses and the date with Stanford is sure to be a sickening massacre, so if Rick Neuheisel hopes to muddle through to the 7-5 record he needs to remain head coach in Westwood, Oregon State is a game he simply must win. (If only our sports vernacular had a pithy phrase to describe such a contest.)
In their decade-plus under Mike Riley, the Beavers have carved out an identity as stealth overachievers. Every year, it seems, they dust themselves off after a couple early, out-of-conference losses and, without anyone really noticing, play their way to an upper-middle-class bowl berth. This is a path they could yet follow in 2011, but even by their typical standards they're off to a worrying start. Their season began with a home loss to Sacramento State, a program you possibly didn't know existed, and continued with a 35-0 extermination at Wisconsin. Whoever loses on Saturday will claim the inside track in the race for worst team in the conference.
Following the Bruins' 29-point home loss to Texas last weekend, the focus of UCLA observers has panned away from field-level issues - Can the passing game improve? Is Kip Smith ready to be the placekicker? - to the broader question of whether Neuheisel has lost the team. The offense has had a little sting to it but still struggles with basic tasks like communicating the right formations and plays. The defense has been a top-to-bottom disaster. Even though two new coordinators were brought on board in the offseason, there's no excuse for a veteran team under a fourth-year head coach to look so persistently baffled. Teething pains should be a thing of the past. Bruin fans are desperate for evidence that the program is being led out of the darkness and instead are seeing the opposite.
Beat reporter Jon Gold described the post-Texas locker room as "not quite a morgue, but not far off":
[Y]ou had players bashing each other and questioning the coaches and coaches nearly in tears. It was the locker room of not just a defeated team, but a defeated team. . . . Things need to change, and they need to change now.
If that's going to happen, Neuheisel has to put on the field his most talented players and not simply the ones he favors. Sounds simple, but that's rarely been a hallmark of his depth-chart construction. Time and again he's frustrated Bruin fans by keeping his best athletes on the bench and defending his choices with hazy assertions about "consistency." Which would be fine except that the guys he does play look lost and underdrilled. If the team's going to commit one to three errors of execution on every snap, you have to play the guys who have a shot to make up for those errors with size and speed.
There are signs Neuheisel is internalizing the lesson. Richard Brehaut has finally been named the unambiguous starter and was given a full week of first-team practice reps. At wide receiver, sophomore Shaq Evans has been promoted. Defensive tackle Donovan Carter and heralded DE prospect Owamagbe Odighizuwa have been seeing more practice time with the starters ahead of the listless Justin Edison and Datone Jones.
The most fraught decision, though, swirls around Brett Hundley. Hundley, who's yet to see game action this season, is a true-freshman quarterback and the gem of the Bruins' 2011 recruiting efforts. The dual run-pass threat he presents could lend a much-needed punch to the UCLA offense, even if limited to gadget plays and Wildcattery. Neuheisel will need to decide whether it's worth burning Hundley's redshirt this season. The LA Times' Chris Foster reports that Hundley continues to have his workload increased in practice.
The Beavers are in a similar state of roster flux. Redshirt freshman Sean Mannion will take his first start at quarterback. He won't be handing off to Malcom Agnew, who ran for 223 yards in the season opener but is out injured, but he will be throwing to James Rodgers, the once-electric flanker whose knee got ripped up against Arizona last year. His return this week will give the Beavers an emotional lift.
Counter-intuitively, Oregon State has underachieved against UCLA. In the post-Bob Toledo years UCLA has won four (and covered the spread in five) of six contests between the teams. The smart money says OSU this year will show as the sharper, more competent team. It's just hard to see how a crumbling squad like the Bruins can get it together away from home. Reckless Prediction: Oregon State - 27, UCLA - 18.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.