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UCLA football gets its opening

Last winter, Rick Neuheisel was meeting in the football office at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High with defensive tackle recruit Cassius Marsh when they were informed that USC assistant Ed Orgeron was on his way over.

UCLA’s head coach looked at Marsh and asked, “Are you committed to us?”

“Yes,” he said. OK, Neuheisel told the young player, then your meeting with Orgeron should be short.

But just in case, Neuheisel waited in the parking lot to time it.

So it goes in the UCLA-USC crosstown turf war, such confrontation unavoidable between programs just a short — pending traffic — freeway drive from each other.

Now Neuheisel could be sitting on top instead of sitting in a car, with UCLA given an opening for the first time since Pete Carroll hung up his shingle near downtown.

USC’s program has been wounded by the NCAA, which handed down a two-year ban on bowl games and a reduction of 30 scholarships spread over the next three seasons. That probably will create a void that UCLA longs to fill.

“SC is still SC and will remain SC until the Bruins show they can compete,” said Rick Kimbrel, West Coast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “But that 30-sholarship hit opens it up for UCLA.”

UCLA fans have been celebrating over the Internet like they have been able to do only once after playing USC the last 12 seasons. Meantime, UCLA coaches and other school officials hit the mute button.

“I think it is inappropriate to comment on something if you are not directly involved,” Neuheisel said.

The Bruins, though, are directly involved. The sanctions against the Trojans can only help UCLA, and everyone around Westwood knows it.

One Bruins player, who asked not to be identified so he wouldn’t get in trouble, put it this way: “This is awesome.”

Another, center Kai Maiava, said, “This is exciting. The SC probation opens up [the Pacific 10 Conference] even more for us.”

Still, not everyone on the UCLA roster was happy to see USC’s NCAA woes.

“I wish they were able to participate in a bowl game so we could prove a point,” tailback Johnathan Franklin said. “I want them back in the race. I want to play them for something. I would love to beat them and put them out of the Rose Bowl.”

In its quest to end USC’s college football monopoly in town — famously stated by UCLA’s marketing department shortly after Neuheisel was hired three years ago — many Bruins say privately that they figured they’d someday get an assist from NCAA investigators.

Now, says an observer who has worked both sides, is UCLA’s time to pounce.

“Pete Carroll had a great personality and he was able to sell kids on his beliefs and his plan,” said New Mexico State Coach DeWayne Walker, who coached at UCLA and USC and was an effective recruiter for both programs. “That was what Rick Neuheisel had to chip away at. I imagine the guys at UCLA are pretty excited about the USC restrictions.”

It’s just that right now Bruins coaches and officials aren’t in a sharing mood when it comes to those opinions. A media alert for a Neuheisel conference call Thursday to discuss the Pacific 10 Conference’s expansion plans included the line: “This is the only subject he will discuss during the call.”

He was asked about USC anyway but allowed only that USC’s probation was “newsworthy.”

A few of his players were more direct. “Whatever helps the Bruins, I’m down with,” offensive tackle Micah Kia said, smiling.

Even before the NCAA swatted the Trojans, Neuheisel was making some inroads. He beat out USC on a handful of local recruits and took the Bruins from 4-8 in 2008 to a 7-6 record and a victory in the EagleBank Bowl last season.

That progress could now be accelerated.

“My guess is that Rick Neuheisel and [Stanford Coach] Jim Harbaugh were smiling big Thursday night,” said Dave White, head coach at Huntington Beach Edison High. “This will make some juniors who are going to be seniors apprehensive.”

But White, whose program has sent players to USC and UCLA, sees a short shelf life on the opportunity, saying, “In a couple years the dust will have settled.”

USC has seven high school players who have made commitments for its 2011 recruiting class. The group includes Los Angeles Crenshaw’s D’Anthony Thomas, the No. 1-rated running back in the nation by Rivals.com.

Whether new USC Coach Lane Kiffin can keep him and the rest in the fold remains to be seen.

“USC was the first school L.A. kids wanted to go to because it had been so dominant,” said Marsh, who will be a freshman at UCLA in the fall. “Now that this has happened those players’ first choice will be UCLA.”

Marsh said he made the same assessment, though with less information.

“I knew something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what,” Marsh said. "[USC coaches] told me they would only lose some games. If I had known how bad they were going to get sanctioned, they wouldn’t even have been on my list.”

Of course, Marsh now has a rivalry-based bias. But USC coaches do face a publicity campaign that will be hard to counter.

“I guarantee you that every coach in the country will be telling recruits, ‘Why go there? They got the death penalty,’” said college football analyst Tom Ramsey, a former UCLA quarterback.

That UCLA will inherit the city’s recruiting riches is an assumption based on location. Walker said that Washington, with former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian, is positioned well. Harbaugh and California’s Jeff Tedford lurk just to the north.

“Now, everyone in the conference, not just UCLA, feels that it’s going to be free rein in the Pac 10,” Walker said.

The Pac-10 Conference’s expansion plans also could bring powerhouses Texas and Oklahoma to town.

So …?

“UCLA needs to win,” Rivals.com’s Kimbrel said. “We’re at the point now where 7-6 is not attractive. You can’t go after kids who are used to winning and ask them to be mediocre. [But] if they win, they could very easily become the flavor of the month. I predict they will.”

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes


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