How They Got Here: UCLA Bruins

Pac-12 Championship Game Homepage

By Jim Gigliotti [ Reprinted from the Pac-12 Championship Game Program ]

Flash back to 1983. The UCLA Bruins open the season with a non-conference loss on the road. A couple games later, they are blasted by a team from the Big 12 (the Big 8 at the time). But after a disastrous 0-3-1 start to the year, UCLA finds its footing and reels off five victories in a row. The Bruins's late-season rally ends up on a positive note as they go on to win an unlikely Conference championship.

Now fast forward back to the present. The Bruins open the 2011 season with a non-conference loss on the road. A couple weeks later, they are blasted by a team from the Big 12. But over the second half of the season, UCLA finds its footing and reels off four victories in five games. Another late-season rally ends up with the team capturing an unlikely spot in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game.

The common denominator in these two stirring UCLA seasons is Rick Neuheisel. He was the starting quarterback as a senior for the 1983 Bruins, and is the head coach at his alma mater now.

Neuheisel's fourth season at the helm got off to an inauspicious start with a 38-34 loss at Houston. The home team's quarterback, Case Keenum, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Cougars' loss to the Bruins at the Rose Bowl in 2010, returned to the field and passed for 310 yards and a touchdown. The Bruins rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit but couldn't quite make it all the way back. Kevin Prince, a solid runner, started the game at quarterback for UCLA but suffered a concussion in the second quarter and was replaced by pass-oriented Richard Brehaut, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another.

One week later, the Bruins found themselves locked in a surprisingly tight battle with San Jose State in the home opener at the Rose Bowl. Running back Derrick Coleman came to the rescue with 135 rushing yards in the second half, including a 24-yard touchdown late in the game to seal the outcome. UCLA knocked off the Spartans, 27-17.

The Bruins stood at 1-1, and that .500 pattern was set for the season's first eight weeks: Win a game one week, lose a game the next week.

Prince returned to the starting lineup the next week against Texas at the Rose Bowl, but he couldn't repeat the heroics of the Bruins' upset victory in Austin in 2010. Instead, the No. 23 Longhorns avenged that defeat by intercepting three passes in the first half and rolling to a 49-20 victory.

Brehaut was the starter at quarterback the next week when UCLA opened its Pac-12 schedule at Oregon State. Highly-touted redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Mannion was impressive for the Beavers in his first career start, but Derrick Coleman rushed for 100 yards, and the Bruins' defense forced two turnovers in a 27-19 victory. UCLA was 1-0 in Conference play for the first time since 2007.

That heady feeling was short-lived when No. 6 Stanford proved to be too big a hurdle on the road. The Cardinal marched 99 yards to a touchdown the first time they had the ball, and went on to win 45-19. Brehaut did have two touchdown passes to emerging tight end Joseph Fauria.

Washington State visited the Rose Bowl the next week. At 3-1, the Cougars were much improved over previous seasons, and they took a 22-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. But Kevin Prince engineered two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, and Andrew Abbott thwarted Washington State's last chance by intercepting a pass to seal UCLA's 28-25 victory.

Prince was in the game against Washington State because Brehaut had suffered a broken leg in the second quarter. The injury was another obstacle for the Bruins to overcome. But quickly adapting to changing circumstances was becoming a hallmark of this UCLA team. The Bruins already had found a new kicker by looking to the school's soccer team—and tabbing the student manager. Tyler Gonzalez eventually made six of his nine field-goal tries and 15 of 16 extra points. Several players changed positions, too, such as wide receiver Randall Carroll, who became a starter at cornerback by the end of the season.

Indeed, rapid adjustments on the fly were just like the Bruins' ongoing pattern of alternating wins and losses. While the losses kept them from making up ground in the Pac-12 South and building any kind of momentum, the wins helped them hang around the race and help the team bounce back from adversity.

Still, nothing was quite like the adversity they were about to face. Twelve days after the stirring victory over Washington State, UCLA traveled to Tucson to play
Arizona in a nationally televised Thursday night game. Arizona was reeling after losing five consecutive games and replacing head coach Mike Stoops with defensive coordinator Tim Kish. But the rejuvenated Wildcats played an inspired game and routed the Bruins, 48-12.

At that point, UCLA could have packed it in for the rest of the year. Instead, that loss led to the first back-to-back victories of the season. The next week, the Bruins bounced back to beat California 31-14 at the Rose Bowl in their most complete game of the season to that point. On offense, Prince rushed for 163 yards while passing for 92 more. Coleman had 80 yards on the ground but, more importantly, he ran for three touchdowns. On defense, freshman safety Tevin McDonald intercepted three passes (the first of his college career) to set up two touchdowns and a field goal.

Then, No. 20 Arizona State visited the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils were heavy favorites to just about wrap up the South Division title, and they jumped out to an eight-point lead in the first half. But Gonzalez kicked a key field goal, Coleman ran one yard for a touchdown, and Prince teamed with Nelson Rosario on a 76-yard touchdown pass to put the Bruins ahead by nine. Arizona State rallied to pull ahead again, but Coleman ran one yard for the go-ahead touchdown with 49 seconds to play, and UCLA pulled off a dramatic 29-28 upset victory. The final touchdown came after a furious 79-yard drive, the key play of which was a stunning conversion on a third-and-29 play that UCLA might point to as the season's biggest. With the surprising win, suddenly, the Bruins were in a tie for first place in the South.

No one knew it at the time, but UCLA's victory sent the Sun Devils reeling to a four-game losing streak to close the regular season, and Arizona State's problems proved pivotal to the Bruins' division championship. Not even a lopsided, 31-6 loss in the snow a week later at resurgent Utah could keep UCLA from controlling its own destiny in the South.

The Bruins bounced back from that loss—naturally—to rout Colorado 45-6 behind Prince's career-best four touchdown passes. He was also a near-perfect 15-for-19 and didn't thrown an interception. After being thrown into the mix due to Brehaut's injury, Prince had become the Bruins' go-to guy. In the game, Fauria had another pair of touchdown catches as he and Prince settled into a nice rhythm. The Bruins' running game found another star, too, when Johnathan Franklin ran for 162 yards and a touchdown, while Shaq Evans also got into the mix, catching a 54-yard scoring strike from Prince.

With that win in their pocket and still clinging to first place, the Bruins got a little magic the following weekend. Colorado, the team that UCLA had humbled the previous week, came up with a stirring upset of Utah. The loss by the Utes made it official, even before the Bruins' last game against USC: UCLA, after all the ups and downs, had done it. The Bruins had earned the right to represent the South in the Pac-12 title game.

UCLA did lose 50-0 to archrival USC in the final regular-season game, but the Bruins knew that they were headed to Eugene for a date with destiny. And since UCLA has followed every loss this season with a win, Bruins' fans are hoping history repeats.

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