WESTWOOD (AP) — Johnathan Franklin and Akeem Ayers immediately noticed the change in their fellow UCLA students’ faces when they got back to Westwood last Sunday.
Instead of the usual grimaces and halfhearted words of encouragement, the Bruins got nothing but spontaneous smiles and cheers from the student body when they returned from a stunning 34-12 victory over Texas.
Although Franklin and Ayers knew they deserved to be big men on campus, the Bruins have seen too many hard times in the past three seasons to get too excited — even about the biggest victory of coach Rick Neuheisel’s tenure.
“Oh, they love you when you’re on top,” said Franklin, who rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown. “They don’t say as much to you when you’re down. It’s OK, though. The fans want UCLA to be back in the race for the Pac-10, and they want it now. And we do, too.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that the Bruins (2-2, 0-1 Pac-10) returned from Austin to a sweltering heat wave in Los Angeles. They’ve been the hottest thing in the Southland after stunning the seventh-ranked Longhorns and their 101,437 vociferous fans — and, truth be told, most of their own fans back home.
“Everyone is excited for us, but we know a lot of people didn’t expect us to win,” said Ayers, the Bruins’ hard-hitting linebacker, who had a key interception.
Until two weeks ago, they had good reason for doubt. The Bruins started 0-2, receiving a 35-0 thrashing from Stanford and generally discouraging fans who had grown a bit impatient for results in Neuheisel’s third season.
Yet UCLA avoided a winless September with a solid victory over then-No. 23 Houston before the improbable win in Texas.
The Bruins’ next game is ostensibly the easiest on their schedule: a visit from hapless Washington State this Saturday. Yet it also looms as a potential trap game for the Bruins, who are determined not to stumble just when they’ve finally got a little momentum.
“There’s huge amounts of improvement that can be made,” Neuheisel said. “If we think we’re good enough to just go and relax now and enjoy the backslapping, we’re out of our minds. I think we have bright enough kids at UCLA to understand that.” Neuheisel didn’t pause to take much pleasure in his alma mater’s big win, saying he would “lock it away for some other time when you can reflect on what a fun experience that was.”
The coaching staff still has plenty of work to do. Perhaps the most surprising detail of the Bruins’ win was their meager 27 yards passing, including a 5-for-8 performance by Kevin Prince, who outgained the entire aerial offense by himself with a 38-yard TD run.
After barely managing to run the ball at all last season, UCLA switched to the Pistol offense to jump-start the ground game. The Bruins can run now, as they demonstrated against Texas, but they’ve become a terrible passing team in the first third of this season.
UCLA’s 81.8 yards passing per game is 118th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, better only than Georgia Tech and Army — and it’s even more surprising given the stature of offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who worked on landmark passing offenses at BYU and USC.
“I know we’re going to have to throw the ball with some measure of success, and we’ve got to start showing we can do it,” Neuheisel said. “The question becomes how much I want to take away from our calling card the last two games, which has been smashmouth, physical, hard-nosed football.”
Prince has been inconsistent while battling near-constant injury woes, completing less than 50 percent of his throws with four interceptions against just two TD passes. Neuheisel might be tempted to switch to backup Richard Brehaut, who often looked overwhelmed when he played for UCLA last season, if Prince doesn’t come back strong from an injured knee that kept him out of the first two days of practice this week.
“If (Prince) can play, he’ll play,” Neuheisel said. “We’re not the kind of team that can save guys.”
It’s too soon to know whether the Bruins’ win at Texas will be awatershed moment for Neuheisel’s rebuilding effort, which seemedstalled just two weeks ago. Although UCLA has an abundance oftalent after three straight outstanding recruiting classes, that talent hadn’t translated into anything special until the Bruins went to Austin.
Now that the Bruins have a good reason to be proud while walking around Westwood, they’re determined to use the good vibes to get into the Pac-10 race.
“Even though we switched around our 0-2 to a 2-2, we could easily go to 2-4,” safety Rahim Moore said. “We have to stay prepared. Every game is an interview. We’ve got to go out against Washington State like it’s Texas, Alabama, whoever.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)