For UCLA, beating Arizona could lead to a big payoff

Sitting on a table collecting dust in the UCLA football office is the Bruins’ claim to fame under Coach Rick Neuheisel: the EagleBank Bowl trophy.

Outside of the head coach’s office is another memento: a large team photo taken in front of the United States Capitol building, the Bruins’ postcard moment from their only bowl game under Neuheisel.

Waiting on Thursday night in Tucson is the opportunity to move toward more impressive hardware and a better photo-op.

The Bruins, as has been the case much of this season, have another can’t-lose game when they face Arizona. UCLA is 3-3 overall, 2-1 in Pacific 12 Conference play, and a victory puts the Bruins into a first-place tie with Arizona State and USC in the league’s South Division.


The South Division winner plays in the North champion in the inaugural Pac-12 football title game Dec. 2.

“The goal we set was to be conference champions and you can’t do that unless you are successful in your [division],” Neuheisel said. “Now we have a chance to be in the thick of things.”

The last time the Bruins were in the thick of things was 2007, when they started 4-0 in conference play.

“Being on top? That’s a great feeling,” linebacker Glenn Love said. “I remember it.”

Love is one of five current players who were redshirts as freshmen on that UCLA team. But the 2007 season ended badly. The Bruins won only one of their final five conference games, leading to Karl Dorrell’s dismissal as head coach.

That season extended a streak that has reached 12 consecutive seasons. UCLA has not gone to the Rose Bowl since 1998, the program’s longest drought since the conference aligned with the Jan. 1 game.

“You would hope it wouldn’t take this long,” Love said. “But we just have to keep moving up the ladder.”

The next rung is a bit tricky.

Arizona fired Mike Stoops as coach last week in the wake of the Wildcats’ 1-5 start, which included losses to fourth-ranked Oklahoma State, eighth-ranked Stanford and 10th-ranked Oregon, as well as USC.

That has the Bruins taking a cautious approach.

“Their backs are against the wall,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “We know what that feels like.”

Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, ranked second nationally in yards passing per game, adds to the concern. UCLA is ranked 76th nationally against the pass.

“He’s great player,” running back Johnathan Franklin said, “but we’re not worried about Nick Foles. We’re worried about UCLA.”

There is enough there to worry about. UCLA has not finished higher than eighth in the conference standings the last three seasons.

“We’ve never been 3-1 [in conference play] since I have been here,” Franklin said. “We need to take this program to the top. With a win on Thursday, we can do that.”

A win against Arizona followed by one over California on Oct. 29 could set up a showdown with Arizona State for the division title Nov. 5.

USC is ineligible to play in the conference title game. Utah and Colorado are 0-3 in conference play. Arizona is 0-4.

A marquee game for the division title is scary talk for Neuheisel.

“Our focus has to be on our game plan, the execution of it and our emotional preparation for the Arizona game,” Neuheisel said. “We can’t be wishing and hoping for games that might be bigger down the road.”

Still, the thought hangs out there.

“A win gets us in the race,” Prince said. “All we’re asking is to be in the race.”

A loss could put the Bruins on a path they know well.

UCLA has entered November with a 3-5 overall record in Neuheisel’s three previous seasons. Only once were the Bruins able to become bowl eligible — when they brought back the EagleBank Bowl trophy.

“We don’t want to go into November needing to go undefeated,” Prince said. “That added pressure is never good for a program.”