You have to give credit to the much-maligned UCLA Bruins in their Pac-12 Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Friday night…
They didn’t quit.
They fought hard, staying within sight of Oregon into the third quarter.
And the effort was definitely there. But…
In the end, it all went as expected as the 8th ranked Ducks were just too quick and overwhelming, beating the Bruins in Rick Neuheisel’s last game as coach, 49-31, clinching the Pac-12 Conference title and earning a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl on January 2 before a raucous, mostly Duck crowd of 59, 376.
Hey, at least Oregon didn’t score 60 points like the last time these two teams played each other!
And the Bruins’ 31 points were more than expected. However…
Four turnovers, including three fumbles in the first half, helped to do UCLA in as they did exactly what they absolutely couldn’t afford to do against a team as good as the Ducks, who took advantage of those miscues starting with LaMichael James’ 30-yard touchdown run after a Kevin Prince fumble on the Bruins’ second play of the game.
I’m sure that every fan in blue and gold saw James’ run – he finished with 219 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries – as the beginnning of the rout, but someone forgot to tell UCLA and linebacker Patrick Larimore, who intercepted a Darron Thomas pass and ran it back for a 35-yard touchdown to tie the game at seven.
Oregon scored twice more after that, but didn’t really pull away until James’ TD run at the end of a five-play drive and Thomas’ pass to tight end David Paulson in the end zone to make it 49-24 by the end of the third quarter.
And even then UCLA wouldn’t quit, just like Rocky Balboa in his first fight with Apollo Creed as Prince, who was battered and beaten up in getting sacked four times and even left the game for a few plays, threw his second touchdown pass to Nelson Rosario at the end of a 94-yard drive with less than two minutes left in the game to make the score more respectable.
Prince finished with 164 yards in the air on 13-of-26 passing, and Rosario has another solid night as he caught six passes for 98 yards and two TDs.
Sure, the Bruins were overmatched as they gave up 571 yards of offense, including 352 on the ground.
James – who became the first player in the history of the Pac-10 / Pac-12 conference to rush for 1,500 yards in a season three times – looked like the Road Runner getting away from Wile E. Coyote at times.
Thomas threw for 219 yards and three scores and ran for another.
And the Ducks’ defense stopped the Bruins on fourth down several times. But…
“We showed we wanted to continue to compete till the very end,” Prince said after the game, and that’s precisely how UCLA sent Neuheisel, who said that his players “fought valiantly”, off.
Looking at the now-former UCLA coach’s numbers, one can clearly see that a change had to be made:
Neuheisel finished with an overall record of 21-29, his .420 win percentage being the worst in school history.
His record away from the Rose Bowl, which I felt was a standout factor, was a wretched 5-18.
His conference record was 13-23.
And in his four years in Westwood, he was outscored by crosstown rival USC 134-28.
Excuse me while I say “Yeesh!” now.
But despite all of that, the fact that the Bruins played so hard for him in Eugene when they could have, in Larimore’s words, “…given in to everybody’s predictions,” said a lot about the UCLA alum and former Bruin quarterback, who emotionally stated:
“They can take my job, but they can’t take these guys away from me.”
The next stop for this team, who at 6-7 was granted a waiver for the post season and will be coached by offensive coordinator Mike Johnson on an interim basis, will be a bowl game, most likely the Las Vegas or Kraft Fight Hinger Bowl in San Francisco.
Lord knows these Bruins can use the extra 15 days of practice.
After everything that has happened, going to a bowl game will be good for UCLA.
Winning it to finish at 7-7 will be even better; I’ll be very interested to see where the Bruins will go and who they will face.