Everyone knows the odds are stacked against UCLA on Friday night.
Everyone knows the Bruins are headed to Oregon as 32-point underdogs in the inaugural Pac-12 Conference championship game, playing one last time for a coach on his way out the door.
So the question becomes: Can they find a way to keep this game close?
As one impartial observer — Oregon State Coach Mike Riley — put it: “That’s going to be a tough one.”
Tough, but not impossible.
Riley and several other Pac-12 coaches who have faced both teams this season see a sliver of hope for the Bruins, a few ways they might stay with the eighth-ranked Ducks.
“They have to do what they do best,” said Colorado Coach Jon Embree, whose son Taylor plays receiver for UCLA. “Just keep to your own style and tempo.”
For UCLA, that begins with the running game.
Just last week, USC coaches were talking about quarterback Kevin Prince making better decisions in the pistol offense and running backs Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman finding room to run.
None of that happened against the Trojans, but UCLA still possesses the third-best rushing offense in the Pac-12, averaging 193.2 yards a game. UCLA’s ability to run could be critical in keeping Oregon’s up-tempo offense on the sideline.
“That’s just game management and they’re going to have to do that,” USC Coach Lane Kiffin said. “If they can’t run the ball, it’s over.”
A consistent ground game would do more than chew up the clock. It would pave the way for something that Embree sees as another key to the game.
The Colorado coach might be a little biased but, in watching film of UCLA this season, he saw flashes of a vertical passing attack from Prince. Big plays could prove essential in keeping pace with an opponent that scores almost 46 points a game.
“The key is UCLA’s ability to throw the ball when it’s time to throw,” Embree said. “If they can do that, it will help.”
John Lynch, the former Stanford and NFL star who now works for Fox Sports, wonders if lame-duck Coach Rick Neuheisel might go for broke. “I heard Rick talk after practice about going deep, deep, deep into the playbook,” Lynch said. “Now he’s got nothing to lose, he can coach aggressively.
“To come up with a David versus Goliath upset, that’s what you have to do.”
Throwing the ball won’t be easy. Oregon opponents complete less than 59% of their throws, which places the Ducks among the better pass defenses in the conference.
So maybe the Bruins’ best hope on Friday has nothing to do with schemes or statistics. Several coaches mentioned their knack for rebounding after a defeat.
For all their struggles, the Bruins have yet to suffer consecutive losses. They bounced back after Texas to beat Oregon State. They got trounced by Stanford, then held off Washington State.
In October, UCLA faced California without six players, suspended after an on-field brawl and disheartening loss at Arizona. The team mustered one of its best performances, winning 31-14.
Granted, Washington State and Cal are not exactly Oregon. But Cal Coach Jeff Tedford wonders if UCLA might get an emotional push in its final game under Neuheisel, who was fired on Monday.
“Typically, those things are used as rallying cries,” Tedford said. “It can bring a team together.”
Whatever the Bruins can conjure in terms of game plan or inspiration, it will have to outweigh a mountain of numbers that suggest they will lose badly.
The Ducks have outgained them by an average of 117 yards and outscored them by an average of 22 points a game. Oregon also has surrendered considerably fewer yards and points than UCLA.
The intricacies of that UCLA pistol offense? Riley says Oregon’s defense faces a similar option-oriented scheme every day, practicing against its own offense.
“The gap responsibilities and the pursuit angles,” he said. “Those are key issues.”
Autzen Stadium, widely considered the loudest and most hostile Pac-12 field, will be another factor weighing against UCLA.
“They’re going to a place that is almost impossible to win in, especially as you get later in the year and the temperature drops and the fans are awesome,” Kiffin said.
Earlier this week, Embree spoke to his son by telephone. There was no sugar-coating the challenge that lay ahead, so the coach offered one piece of advice.
“Play fast, play physical and have fun,” he said. “That’s all you can control.”
Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.