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Clear Signs Of Progress: Rick Neuheisel Has Our Bruins Marching Forward (And Meeting Expectations)

Let's do another quick reset on this Sunday. Rick Neuheisel's UCLA football team is entering the last game of the regular season (the Holy one) with a record of 6-5, riding a 3 game winning streak. Obviously if you look around here and among other hard core UCLA communities you will get a sense of giddiness and optimism we haven't experienced in a long time. However, no one should mistake that with the notion that we think somehow 6 wins are the standards of success in Westwood. Anyone doing that (like the moronic beat reporter from the Trojan Times) is missing the big picture about where UCLA program was when Rick Neuheisel took it over and how long the journey is going to be before we finally get the program to where it belongs (regularly competing for Pac-10 championships).

During the pre-season, consensus emerged re. expectations heading into this year projecting UCLA to win either 6 or 7 regular season games making itself bowl eligible. Getting to that stage after suffering through a 4-8 season (marked by a talent and experience void all over the team) would amount to same accomplishment for Neuehisel, as what Howland did during his second year in Westwood when he got us into the first round of NCAA tournament. Well with just one game left in this season, I think CRN can make a good argument that he has gotten it done. This year Bruins have won every game they were supposed to (which wasn't the case during previous regimes). They came short in games they were underdogs except for the one in Tennessee and if not for a dropped interception (which would probably turn into pick-6) in Corvallis they would probably looking at a pretty solid 7-4 record at this point in CRN's second season in Westwood. In other words, despite what some blowhards in the media tried to tell us earlier this year (writing nonsense like Neuheisel's team "falling apart") the UCLA football program is showing clear signs of progress and taking step towards right direction.

Those signs of progress were pretty evident yesterday on both sides of the ball. I will start with the defense. Chuck Bullough has gotten a lot of critcism this year (and I though it was deserved). However, it was his defense that really set the tone and won the game for us against ASU. I thought it was huge, especially going into the game, knowing how tough the ASU defense was we were looking at our defense to win the game for us. Well they came through in a big way, destroying the Sun Devil's offense (which seems to have found its own QB) with 6 TOs, returning two for TDs, and limiting them to 315 total yards. Price and Ayers were the defensive terror mongers:

Price had four tackles for a loss, including two sacks.

"It's just hard to block him," defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said. "He's a powerful guy."

Ayers had two tackles for a loss, one of which was a sack. Bullough used him at defensive end at times, as Korey Bosworth was hampered by a sprained ankle.

"Sometimes he gives you that burst off the edge," Bullough said. "You want to put in him in spots like that because he can be successful."

We have already talked a little about how cool it is to see Ayers coming off the edge. The player he reminds me most of is the late great Derrick Thomas. He seems to have found his natural place in our defense. It's not dropping back in coverage but to find a way to get to the quarterback or just hang out in backfield. It's just fun to watch and he has now emerge as the clear front runner to take share the leadership role with Rahim Moore for next year's defense.

As for Brian Price, what else is there to say. I am going to miss the Big Bear next season. He was classic BP. However, the play that will give Chetey Petey something to think about is the one leading to the second TD. Someone needs to review the tape but IIRC in that sequence BP had lined up at the edge bringing pressure from the outside. That was a new wrinkle Bullough through at Arizona State, which caught them flatfooted. Loved it.

The rest of the defense did all right. Seemed like we had our classic slow start at the beginning when Dimitri Nance kept gashing us for chunks of yardage in that first drive. He was just slicing through the front-7 at the beginning before ATV took it to the House. The defense did make some adjustments though and as a result after Nance racked up some solid yardage at the beginning, he didn't do much rest of the game. Both of the ASU TDs seem to come in broken plays when their QB basically made something out of nothing. Heading into next weekend the Bruin defense will obviously take on an offense with surreal talent. However, I think if they can generate the same kind of heat on Heisman Barkley, and contain McKnight around 120-140 yard rushing yards for the day, I think we will have a shot. More after the jump.

Moving over to the offense, I actually was all right with what I saw from our offense yesterday. We knew we were taking on the best defense in the conference and one of the better ones in the nation. ASU's front-7 is really good and they are vicious hitters. Their secondary also played well. This was one of those games we needed Prince to manage the game and he did exactly that. Our offense didn't turn the ball over once, helping UCLA to win the TO margin by 6-0.

Of course the penalties were killers. Probably cost a TD here and there as we racked up 11 penalties for 100 yards. We will have to clean that up especially among our OL. On the other hand, I thought our OL did ok as they gave Kevin Prince time and most importantly, help wear down the ASU defense in second half, by opening up holes for Chane - The Train - Moline. Here is CRN talking about his game script:

"We learned how not to lose a game," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "We hung in there and protected a lead. That doesn't mean you can afford to not stay aggressive. Penalties kept us from getting a little momentum down the field. But by not turning the ball over and playing sound field-position football, we kept ourselves ahead."

Norm Chow emphasized the point about winning the TO battle to win the game:

"We gave it away last year," UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. "They gained 120 yards on offense, and we gave it to them. We couldn't do that. You get to the end and you try to win the game. At this point in the season, all you have to (do is) win. However you win, you have to win."

And his field general - Kevin Prince - talked about making it happen with ball control on the field:

"We weren't trying to do anything too big," said Prince, who added 42 yards on the ground. "That's a good way to describe it, a mature performance. It's important to go in there and execute a game-plan. The coaches just wanted to make sure we didn't turn it over. That's the story of the game - five to zero in turnover margin."

Actually it was better than 5 to 0 Kevin (it was 6-0). A huge reason we were able to win that battle was because of dependable and productive carries from Chane. CRN was impressed:

Senior Chane Moline came to UCLA as a tailback and scored five touchdowns as a short-yardage back as a freshman. He has played fullback this season, but Saturday he was back at tailback, grinding out 84 yards in 25 carries.

The move was made after the Bruins had trouble with fumbles in recent weeks.

"We have been using Chane in bits and pieces and decided maybe we should do it on an every-down basis," Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "It was fun to watch us slug it out."

It was definitely fun to see our OL opening holes against a solid DL and Chane just blast through it. I wonder if we are going to see some of the identical packages next weekened (mixed in with doses of Jet Ski and Knox)

In terms of next week, Reggie Carter as always is just a little excited:

"I love being underdogs. I hope they think we can't win at all. Hopefully, we're 50-point underdogs," he said. "Then they'll be surprised if we win."

Prince is glad that we don't have to go through a bye week to wait for the Trojans:

"I'd prefer doing it this way; I hate bye weeks," Prince said. "I feel like it kind of takes you off your rhythm. It's good for getting guys healthy, but we're healthy enough. We needed to come out here and play and continue to get our confidence going."

And I will end with this from CRN:

"As a program, you've got to learn to crawl, then walk," Neuheisel said. "Next week, let's see if we can't run a little bit."

Well we are glad that our team is standing and walking after all the cat calls about it "falling apart" earlier this season coach. It is going to be fun to read about these guys prepare for next Sat. Hopefully our coaches will have our boys locked in and focused for their best game week of practice. I think it will a matter of which guys are the most prepared next Saturday.

I feel confident though that Rick Neuheisel and his staff will do whatever possible to get our boys focused and ready. As mentioned above, given what we have seen this month (and actually the whole season) it's clear our guys are fighting together every game. They have already done their part for showing progress.