UCLA needs to clear hurdles

LOS ANGELES -- Rick Neuheisel and his UCLA Bruins have come, once again, to a hurdle. Eighty yards deep into the season, end zone in sight and what feels like the same hurdle they've come to at several other points in this race still sitting in front of them.

It is coincidence more than irony that the Bruins' latest challenge will come in the city where Neuheisel enjoyed so much success and then later failure.

The stakes Thursday night are high -- UCLA needs to win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible; Washington needs to win all three -- but not quite as dire as what Neuheisel once went through in Seattle.

Failure to clear this hurdle probably means another thudding offseason. A fittingly milquetoast aftertaste to what's mostly been a bland year.

Finally stretching out and landing cleanly on the other side by winning a tough game and building momentum -- as UCLA has thus far failed to do against Kansas State, California and Arizona -- simply means having to do it again next week at Arizona State.

In other words, winning isn't everything or the only thing UCLA still needs to do.

"We're well aware of the math," Neuheisel said. "But all we can do this week is win one. And we have to do everything we can to focus on the one.

"Every time, you start looking at the schedule and prognoticating. It's fun to do and probably important to do, but you have to then come back and reel it in to win the one that's available to you."

Neuheisel is right. This isn't just a math issue.

It's a character issue.

Like most of the tightly bunched teams in the middle of the Pac-10 conference, the Bruins have the talent and the turmoil to win or lose just about every game.

One week, they look as if they can beat anyone not wearing green and gold and flying at warp speed all over the field. The next, they're getting blown out on the road against Cal.

To be fair, it's not just UCLA that has this issue. That preseason Pac-10 coaches caravan to New York City and ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., next year might be more like group therapy than a publicity tour.

When Neuheisel and Oregon State's Mike Riley shook hands after the Bruins' 17-14 win last week, I half-expected one would give the other guy a hug and say, "I feel ya, buddy; hang in there."

Earlier this week, I gave Neuheisel a chance to excuse his team's lack of consistency this season. And after the number of season-ending injuries his team has suffered this year, I don't think I would have blamed him if he did distance himself, or at least punt on the question.

Instead, he straightened up, looked into the cameras and tried to strike a positive note.

"We've got a story to tell but no one is interested in it," he said. "We've got to fight, scratch and claw to get to postseason. But the only thing we can do to help that cause is to play really well this weekend."

How much would going to a bowl game mean to his program?

"Given all that's happened in our program with the attrition and so forth, I think it would be a terrific feather in our cap," he said.

"You never want to derail momentum."

It might not have seemed like much, but UCLA did have momentum after winning the EagleBank Bowl last season.

I still don't know where to find an EagleBank in California, but simply going to a bowl and playing on national television is all a talented recruiter like Neuheisel needs to take with him into the living room to pitch to mothers and fathers.

He's great at extolling the virtues of UCLA, too. Family, academics, tradition. All that's great. But to land the kind of recruits he needs to replenish what was a rather barren cupboard when he took over in 2007, it's a heck of a lot easier to sell progress, exposure and bowl games.

And yes, before you ask, barring any unforeseen circumstances, there will be a next year for Neuheisel. He's still popular with alumni and within the athletic department, and under contract until Dec. 31, 2012.

In other words, Rick Neuheisel and his Bruins have come, once again, to a hurdle, not a crossroads.

But at some point, they're going to need to clear it.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.