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Thursday, October 16, 2008
Pac-10 midseason report: UCLA

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Few teams soared so high and then tumbled so quickly as UCLA (2-4, 1-2 Pac-10) in the first half of the season.

The Bruins were projected by a lot of folks to finish in the bottom third of the Pac-10 after losing their top two quarterbacks and two starting offensive linemen before preseason practices even began. But they opened with a shocking overtime win over Tennessee in Rick Neuheisel's debut coaching his alma mater.

For an encore, they lost 59-zip at BYU.

And then they lost at home 31-10 to Arizona and 36-31 to Fresno State, a game in which the school's marketing department aggressively tried to lure Bulldogs fans to the Rose Bowl, presumably to cheer against the home team who pays their salaries.

The Fresno game, however, hinted that the Bruins were improving, as did a scrappy effort last weekend at Oregon.

A 25-point win over Washington State showed that there's plenty of room between UCLA and the bottom of the conference, but the Bruins are trying to move up with an overmatched offensive line, a young secondary and injury issues.

Offensive MVP: Punter Aaron Perez ranks second in the Pac-10 with a 43.8-yard average and 13 of his 40 punts have gone for 50-plus yards. He also has had 11 punts downed inside an opponent's 20-yard line. Perez has consistently helped the Bruins win the field position battle, particularly early in the year when the offense was anemic.

Defensive MVP: Cornerback Alterraun Verner got roughed up at BYU, but otherwise he's played at a high level. He ranks third on the defense with 40 tackles and has two interceptions and seven other pass breakups.

What's next: If UCLA has ideas of a making a surprising surge toward bowl eligibility, it's going to need to beat Stanford this weekend. Otherwise, prospects look mostly grim.

Quarterback Kevin Craft has improved -- he's thrown only two interceptions since throwing four in the first half against Tennessee -- but the Bruins offense is unlikely to solve across-the-board issues this fall. And the offensive woes haven't helped a defense that is using a lot of young players and is giving up nearly 31 points per game.

The redletter date on the schedule is a Nov. 15 visit to Washington, which unceremoniously fired Neuheisel before the 2003 season. A win in Seattle in front of beleaguered Huskies fans, who surely will remember Neuheisel's masterful coaching job during the 2000 Rose Bowl season, would insure the Bruins don't finish in the conference basement.