UCLA plans to enjoy itself in Neyland Stadium
September, 11, 2009
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Redundant questions are part of the game, and a veteran coach like Rick Neuheisel knew entering the week that he was going to field a bevy of inquiries about how his young UCLA Bruins would handle the intensity of 100,000 fans at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
Neuheisel's responses included two two points: 1. It's going to be fun; 2. It's not that big of a deal.
"A lot is made of it. It's going to be no secret to our players that it's going to be loud," Neuheisel said. "I don't think making this seem like this is a mountain we have to climb is the right way. We address it. We deal with the practical things in terms of snap counts and trying to make checks as an offense."
Eyebrows arched at these responses.
In 2006, a very good California squad wilted inside Neyland, losing 35-18, a final score that doesn't do justice to how badly things went that day for the Bears.
It's pointed out that the Bruins feature a redshirt freshman quarterback and two offensive linemen -- one a true freshman, the other a JC transfer -- making their first road start. Is Neuheisel really confident that these youngsters won't be wide-eyed?
"Do I have a choice? Ready or not, here we come," Neuheisel said. "We have to go and play and I don't want them to be nervous about it. I want them to go and enjoy the dang experience and I think we're going to do that."
UCLA enjoyed last year's game, a 27-24 overtime victory in the Rose Bowl over the then-18th-ranked Volunteers, who would fire coach Phil Fulmer at season's end and hire former USC assistant Lane Kiffin to restore the once proud program to national prominence.
Which is sort of why UCLA hired Neuheisel last year.
Both Neuheisel and Kiffin energized their fans with highly rated recruiting classes, and both teams will feature plenty of freshmen in the rotation. UCLA played eight, Tennessee 11, in their respective season openers.
UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince, a redshirt freshman, had mixed results in his first start against San Diego State. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 176 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also fumbled and was sacked three times.
"In the second half, I made some silly mistakes and poor reads, little things I could have easily avoided," Prince said. "I thought it was a good learning experience."
Neuheisel said he thought Prince "relaxed" in the second half.
"I saw a lot of good things," he said. "He was better than he'd been in our scrimmages, so he handled the pressure of game day. He was very sharp for most of the evening. But there were some mental lapses, some things that I know he's scratching his head as to how he let that happen."
There will be no relaxing against the Vols, particularly with ball-hawking safety Eric Berry prowling the secondary.
Nonetheless, the Bruins seem to be down-playing Berry's threat -- he had an interception in last year's game -- just like they are the hostile atmosphere.
"You can't focus too much on one player -- you can't be afraid," Prince said. "You've just got to look at the schemes they are running and try to attack the schemes and not worry about a single player."
Both defenses are solid, though the Bruins took a big hit to their secondary when Aaron Hester went down with a fractured right fibula. Hester's replacement, 5-foot-8 Courtney Viney, will be a tempting target for Vols quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who threw for 233 yards and five touchdowns in the 63-7 win over Western Kentucky.
The game almost certainly will turn on how well Prince and his rebuilt offensive line handles the pressure of the crowd and the moment, not to mention a fairly good Tennessee defense.
Twenty-three Bruins saw their first college action in the win over San Diego State. This one will feel different.
Neuheisel, again, just wants his guys to enjoy themselves.
"I don't want them to avoid the excitement that comes from playing in that kind of venue," he said. "You'd be missing out on something that could be a memory for a long time."
Then he concluded, "How positive that memory is going to be is up to how well we play."