As I ponder the season that the 2011 version of the UCLA Bruins’ football team has had, I can’t help thinking that there were fifty teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that would have dearly loved to have had six wins and gone to a post-season bowl game.
That’s one of the few positive spins I can think of, however, as this year has been filled with more frustrating inconsistencies and disappointments, so much so that it cost Rick Neuheisel his job as the Bruins’ head coach after four years.
Jim L. Mora was hired in mid-December to right the ship, but a discussion of the high and low points to this season is in order right now:
HIGH POINTS (yes, believe it or not, there were some):
1. UCLA 31 – California 14, October 29th
After a debacle that saw the Bruins come completely unglued in their humiliating loss to Arizona the previous week, UCLA fans were forming a virtual lynch mob for Neuheisel as they faced Cal at the Rose Bowl.
That lynch mob was disbanded that evening, at least for the time being, as the Bruins showed some guts and came through in beating their older UC brothers from Berkeley, which was highlighted by Tevin McDonald’s three interceptions and running back Derrick Coleman’s three touchdown runs.
Here is a clip of McDonald’s three picks:
2. UCLA 29 – Arizona State 28, November 5th
After their win over the Golden Bears, the next week saw UCLA with their biggest challenge at home, a date with an Arizona State Sun Devil team that was riding high with a 6-2 record, a top-25 ranking, and a firm seat on top of the Pac-12 South with an eventual date in the conference championship game on the horizon.
As the game unfolded, however, it was apparent that someone forgot to tell the Bruins about ASU’s resume as they played the Sun Devils even, holding a lead at halftime and not giving up when they took a 28-23 lead in the fourth quarter.
UCLA’s last drive wasn’t pretty as it was punctuated by fumbles and a pass interference call, but Derrick Coleman’s touchdown with less than a minute left, and the subsequent missed field goal on the last play that would have won the game for Arizona State, secured the upset for the Bruins.
It was another case of the team playing with absolute guts and heart, which was very pleasing for the Bruin Nation to see.
The following is a clip of Coleman taking on ASU’s volatile linebacker Vontaze Burfict on a key play and coming out on top:
3. UCLA 45 – Colorado 6, November 19th
This was the most complete game that UCLA played in 2011, as Kevin Prince threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Shaquille Evans on the game’s second play; the Bruins scored two more touchdowns on their next two possessions after that and never looked back.
Here is a video clip of Prince’s pass to Evans:
Three Colorado passes were picked off, two by Andrew Abbott, and UCLA scored touchdowns on its last three possessions to make it a most enjoyable night.
As good as those high points were, it was the low points that weighed heavier and ultimately defined the Bruins…
1. Arizona 48 – UCLA 12, October 20th
More than the 42 first half points that the Wildcats put up on Neuheisel’s team in Tucson, this so-called game was marred by an ugly fight just before the half that saw Taylor Embree get ejected, and five of his teammates (along with him), including three of his fellow wide receivers, get suspended for the next game against Cal.
UCLA couldn’t do anything right; doing nothing but commit penalties and turnovers, and performing mostly three-and-outs against a team that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in rushing defense for most of the night.
It was an utterly forgettable experience to be sure, but this next low point was worse:
2. USC 50 – UCLA 0, November 26th
Not too much can be said about this humiliation, except that these Bad News Bruins looked like a Pop Warner team – and not even a good one at that.
The fact that this was a game against the hated rival made it all the worse; one would think that the motivation would be there, but it was painfully obvious that it wasn’t.
I refuse to go into the details of that disaster at the Coliseum, except that it was akin to a kid getting beaten up on the school playground for his lunch money and taking that beating in a very submissive and wimpy fashion.
And it was the last straw for athletic director Dan Guerrero as he relieved Neuheisel of his duties as head coach 48 hours later.
3. Illinois 20 – UCLA 14, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
It wasn’t that the Bruins played horribly in this game – they performed better than against Arizona and USC – but it was an affair that perfectly illustrated their season as key mistakes, namely Kevin Prince throwing yet another interception for a touchdown and the defense giving up a 60-yard TD pass, blowing a second half lead in the process, doomed UCLA.
And while I don’t know about everyone else, it gave me a feeling of I’m-just-glad-it’s-all-over-with at the game’s end.
When one looks at the final statistics of the Bruins’ leading players, they don’t look all that bad, notably Kevin Prince’s as he finished with a 56.2% completion percentage and threw for 1,828 yards. His 12 touchdowns, a career high, were more than his eight interceptions, and he proved to be an extremely tough kid.
Despite that, his mistakes – throwing pick-sixes and making bad decisions over and over again – were costly enough to outweigh his attributes. And his arm, quite frankly, is not Division I FBS material.
Nelson Rosario dropped quite a few passes, but he also was a bright spot as the receiver led UCLA with 64 catches, 1,161 yards, and five touchdowns. Johnathan Franklin fell just short of his second straight 1,000 yard season, and he did well with his 5.9 yards per carry, but the running back’s fumbling continued to be an issue.
Derrick Coleman was the most valuable player of UCLA football this season, as he was the most consistent athlete the Bruins had with his 11 rushing scores. Whenever the team needed short yardage and first downs, he got them nearly every time – and he was pure class off the field.
Here’s another clip of some of Coleman’s exploits:
More than anything else, this program needs a complete culture change, a change where winning, and being committed to doing whatever is necessary to achieve such, means everything to every player on the team, rather than an atmosphere where players go “over the wall”and ditch a day of practice.
That was the worst thing about the Bruins in 2011, and that’s the challenge that Mora, the new man in charge in Westwood, must face as he and his new staff – only one of Neuheisel’s assistants is scheduled to be retained – closes the book on the Rick Neuheisel era and starts a new book of their own in 2012.