UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin huddled in the back of the small locker room at the Coliseum on Saturday night, with no way to hide his emotions.
Stunned. Shocked. Defeated. All products of USC’s 50-0 victory over UCLA.
“We’ve got to . . . uh . . . swallow it and accept it,” Franklin said, then acknowledged, “50-0 is a hard pill to swallow. We did not show up. We did not show up.”
Days later, Franklin showed up, smiling and determined.
“You’ve got to let a game like that go,” Franklin said Tuesday. “I still have a chip on my shoulder. I’m still angry. Nothing has changed.”
But it had.
This has been an all-too-familiar personality swing for the Bruins this season. Beat down one week, making amends the next.
This time, the chore is a little harder. The double haymaker of being pummeled by their rival and losing their coach, Rick Neuheisel, in a matter of days makes rallying for Friday’s Pac-12 Conference championship game against Oregon the Bruins’ toughest test.
“We don’t have much to lose now,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “Coach Neuheisel is definitely gone after this game. No one expects us to win. We come out and play free.”
There has been a less-stress feel to practices so far this week.
Monday was full of bluster, with players seemingly determined to support Neuheisel with effort. Tuesday was more businesslike, yet active.
Neuheisel says he has sensed a focus spawned by his firing.
“There is no question it would have been a distraction if we had been asking questions about what I needed to do to keep my job,” Neuheisel said. “I’m glad, in that respect, that’s behind us. I would have liked the decision to go the other way, but we’re all big and can handle the eventualities that happen in this sport.”
Neuheisel has seen this pendulum swing too many times this season. An exhilarating victory followed by an embarrassing loss, and vice versa.
“The negative side is we have had too much practice at bouncing back,” Neuheisel said. “On the positive side, I think there is a great deal of character.”
Stanford methodically disassembled the Bruins, 45-19. They came back to beat Washington State the following week.
Arizona brutally dismantled the Bruins, 48-12, in a game that included an on-field brawl. They came back to beat California the following week, then posted perhaps their most important win of the season, over Arizona State.
Utah wore UCLA down, 31-6, in the snow. The Bruins came back to rout Colorado the following week. Then came the USC debacle.
“That’s been the frustrating part; we can’t do it on a weekly basis,” Prince said.
The flip-flop performances were a reason cited by Athletic Director Dan Guerrero during Monday’s news conference announcing Neuheisel’s dismissal.
“In the end it came down to the direction of the program, the inconsistency of the players this year,” Guerrero said.
Neuheisel said “our opponents had something to do with that.” After Friday, Neuheisel said, “We will have played four top-10 teams on the road,” in Houston, Stanford, USC and Oregon.
But the Bruins’ erratic nature was never more telling than last week. A win over USC would have earned UCLA a share of the South Division title. Yet USC’s equine mascot Traveler was more active at the Coliseum than the Bruins’ defense.
“To graduate never having beaten our rival is disappointing,” senior receiver Taylor Embree said. “We have a lot of soul searching to do before we go up to Oregon.”
The bounce-back, in practice anyway, has been apparent. So has the reason for it, according to UCLA players.
“Neuheisel,” Franklin said.
Neuheisel pointed elsewhere.
“Our coaching staff has always done a good job not to let those games haunt us where they become a hangover,” Neuheisel said.
Whether the Bruins have one more rubber-band act in them will be seen Friday.
Said Franklin: “We’re men, it’s football, we have to fight back.”