UCLA riding reverse momentum into Pac-12 title game
That beeping sound isn’t a truck backing up.
It’s UCLA heading toward the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
The Bruins play Oregon in Eugene on Friday night — with the winner going to the Rose Bowl — on the heels of a 50-0 thrashing by USC that left the Trojans in first place and the Bruins as “champions” in the South Division.
Coach Rick Neuheisel was hoping for a statement victory so no asterisk would be necessary to explain UCLA’s presence in the title game. Asterisk or not, the Bruins forge ahead.
“I don’t care what people think,” Neuheisel said. “As far as I know, they are sending a plane to pick us up and we’re going to get on it.”
This hardly seems like the buzz Pac-12 officials hoped to get for the conference’s first championship game.
•Oregon (10-2 overall, 8-1 in conference play) is a 30½-point favorite.
•UCLA is seen as the best-we-can-do substitute with USC ineligible for the game because of NCAA probation.
•The Bruins are teetering on the brink of a coach search.
On top of that, Oregon blitzed the Bruins, 60-13, in Eugene last season.
Playing for a championship following the worst conference loss in UCLA’s history “is a little weird,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “Obviously, things didn’t go the way we wanted. We’d prefer to make the championship game by winning [the division] outright.”
But, Prince said, “We get another opportunity to redeem ourselves and our season by winning the Pac-12 championship.”
The Bruins got the opportunity by finishing second in a division where teams seemed to view the title game as punishment.
Arizona State was in control of the division but lost its final four games. All Utah had to do was beat 2-10 Colorado at home Friday, but the Utes squandered the chance. That put UCLA in the title game no matter what happened against USC.
The 50-0 rout was “a somber time,” Prince said, but “there is still tons to play for this season.”
The goal now for the Bruins is to prove they belong in the title game.
“If we win, people can’t say too much,” Prince said. “They can still say we backed into it, but it wouldn’t take away a legitimate win that beating Oregon would be. I would have no problem with anything else the critics might say.”
USC players provided their critique postgame, wearing T-shirts that said, “South Division Champions.”
Neuheisel said, “What they choose to do in their program is their choice. I have a great deal of respect for [USC Athletic Director] Pat Haden and [Coach] Lane Kiffin. The facts are they were not [champions].”
As to whether he would allow his players to wear such shirts if roles were reversed, Neuheisel said, “That’s hypothetical. I don’t have to answer it.”
Neuheisel did answer questions about his future as coach, saying he had done enough to warrant returning for a fifth season.
“I was told we needed to move the needle and we’d be fine,” Neuheisel said.
“We have won five conference games, as opposed to three last year. We have won the right to represent the South in the conference championship. We have certainly had some unfortunate evenings where things haven’t gone our way. But I think the program is headed in the right direction.”
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