LOS ANGELES (AP) - UCLA’s stunning victory at Texas last year was the undeniable highlight of coach Rick Neuheisel’s disappointing third season.
Neuheisel could really use another highlight when the Longhorns return the visit on Saturday.
UCLA (1-1) hosts No. 23 Texas at the Rose Bowl after an unimpressive start for a coach on the self-described hot seat. The Bruins gave up 38 points in a season-opening loss at Houston before grinding out a 27-17 home victory last weekend over San Jose State, which won just three games in the previous two seasons.
The next game won’t break UCLA’s season, but a win could certainly make Neuheisel more comfortable in Westwood.
“It’s a marquee program,” Neuheisel said Monday. “And because of the perception of our program, to come out and play a great game against a marquee program and to find a way to win it will put at ease those folks who are concerned about where we are. At least we have to play as well as we possibly can. … I know Texas is as motivated as we are, so it should be a whale of a ballgame.”
The Bruins’ motivation level has been tough to figure out for weeks. Neuheisel wrapped up a practice last week by shouting at his team: “I can’t be the only one who cares!”
Neuheisel and his players shrugged off the exclamation as coachspeak, but the Bruins then shuffled through the first three quarters against the seriously undermanned Spartans last weekend before surging in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps Tommy Lasorda can reach these Bruins: The longtime Dodgers manager will speak to the team on Saturday at its hotel before the game.
“I think we’ve got the right mettle in the program,” Neuheisel said. “I think we’ve got the right character in the program. We just have to get them to play faster and play with the kind of skill that they possess on a game-to-game basis. I think that we can certainly play better, and we will play better this weekend.”
Neuheisel still sees bowl potential in his Bruins, who have better health and more depth than any team in Neuheisel’s tenure at his alma mater. Nearly every potential starter is available with the returns of linebacker Glenn Love and quarterback Kevin Prince from injuries, along with center Kai Maiava’s return from a one-game team suspension.
And though Neuheisel has nothing but praise for Texas coach Mack Brown’s rebuilding superpower, UCLA also knows the Longhorns (2-0) could be ripe for another upset. Texas is returning to the Rose Bowl — the site of its loss in the BCS title game in January 2010 — with inexperienced quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash running an offense that barely beat BYU at home last week.
“Regardless of the circumstances surrounding their internal situation, it’s a great opportunity to play a program like Texas,” Neuheisel said. “For our program to take a step forward and become what we all hope to achieve, it’s a great opportunity.”
But Neuheisel must get back to work fixing a passing game that managed just 145 yards against San Jose State. UCLA’s passing offense was among the nation’s worst last season, but the Bruins thought it was working again after a strong start against Houston.
Neuheisel isn’t likely to name a starting quarterback this week. Although Richard Brehaut has played most of the first two games after finishing up last season as UCLA’s starter, Prince is “healthy and ready to go” after injuring his shoulder and incurring a concussion in the season opener at Houston.
Prince led the Bruins past Texas last season, running for a touchdown and passing for another in UCLA’s 34-12 win.
“We took a step backwards in the throw game, which surprised me,” Neuheisel said. “I didn’t think we’d do that. We’ve got to take a look.”
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