UCLA, Neuheisel still have high hopes


UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel could spin a happy yarn about a flattened bunny rabbit on the highway. A empty glass is something that, heck, could one day be half-full! Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Are you sure they just aren't misunderstood?

So while most feel like Neuheisel is engaged in a high-stakes, win-or-else season that at this point could go either way, the Bruins coach claims he's oblivious to the negative chatter. Nor does he feel the pressure that most would assume is consuming him.

"I don't," he said. "Maybe that is naive on my part. Maybe that's the early onset of some sort of dementia. I don't know. I just am enjoying coaching this football team and I'm enjoying trying to keep ourselves in the race. It's an exciting time for us."

That could be coachspeak -- or Neuheisel-speak -- but that's his story and he's consistently been on message with it this season and throughout his Bruins tenure: Relentless optimism.

Of course, Neuheisel won't have to look too hard Thursday to understand the less cheerful side of his business. When UCLA visits Arizona, Wildcats coach Mike Stoops will no longer be raging along the opposite sideline. He was fired after a 1-5 start and replaced by former defensive coordinator Tim Kish.

"There was a grieving process in there," Kish said. "But we couldn't sit on that. We had to get the healing process started as soon as possible."

Of course, the healing process at Arizona could spell doom for Neuheisel. If the Bruins lose to a team that just fired its coach, well, it's hard to imagine that going over well with already frustrated Bruins fans. No one is saying Neuheisel would get canned the following Monday, as Stoops did on Oct. 10 after a loss at previously winless Oregon State, but it wouldn't be completely shocking if it did happen.

Kish wants his team to loosen up and have fun. He admits they've played tight much of the year as the losses -- 10 consecutive games to FBS teams and counting -- mounted up. But if they do that and the scoreboard smiles back at them, their redeeming performance would plant a heavy axe blow into Neuheisel's and the Bruins' fortunes.

"Unfortunately, that's just the nature of the beast in our business," Kish said. "That's what we signed up for when we became coaches. We know how this works."

Yet if we bracket off the recriminations in Westwood for a moment, Neuheisel does have a point about one thing: The Bruins are squarely in the Pac-12 South Division race. While they are just 3-3 overall, they also are 2-1 in conference play. If they beat the Wildcats, they will be tied with Arizona State atop the conference heading into next week.

While UCLA still has to play USC -- a team the Sun Devils beat -- the remaining schedule is forgiving. It's possible that the division will be decided on Nov. 5 when Arizona State visits the Rose Bowl, where the Sun Devils have lost five of their past six games.

If the Bruins win the rest of their games, including the ASU game, but then lose at USC in the season-finale -- "ARRRGGHHH!" say Bruins fans -- guess who, nonetheless, would represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game? That's right, UCLA.

So if you ask Neuheisel about his players getting distracted by the negative chatter, well, let him tell you about uplifting opportunities!

"I think my guys are excited about being in the race," he said. "We've got a chance with a victory this week to be in first place. That's what we are focusing on."

As far as the football side of this, both teams are playing terrible defense. The Bruins have been less terrible, but also not as good on offense. Things may come down to whether or not the Wildcats and their run defense, ranked last in the conference and 100th in the nation, can slow down a good Bruins running game, which ranks second in the conference.

Of course, the Wildcats do also rank 117th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, so even the passing-challenge Bruins and QB Kevin Prince, who's back as the starter after a season-ending injury to Richard Brehaut, might want to test things with some shots downfield.

In what might seem like an oddity, Arizona is favored by four points.

No matter. Questions, doubts, negativity -- none of that concerns Neuheisel. His focus is on the positive, on winning Thursday and on winning the South.

Said Neuheisel, "I don't know where your focus is. Our focus is only on that."