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Rick Neuheisel turns UCLA around

PASADENA, Calif. -- First place is a funny spot to find a team that was left for dead.

On top of the world is not exactly where you'd expect to find a coach who was being kicked to the curb just two weeks ago.

UCLA and coach Rick Neuheisel have steadfastly refused to listen to outsiders who have been shoveling dirt on their graves since an embarrassing Oct. 20 loss to Arizona. And after a thrilling 29-28 victory over Arizona State on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins now control the race in the Pac-12 South.

UCLA (5-4, 4-2 in conference) is now two games over .500 in conference play for the first time in Neuheisel's tenure and with wins in the final three games would represent the South Division in the Pac-12 title game.

Yes, the same team that went to Arizona two weeks ago and embarrassed itself in a 48-12 loss that had everyone wondering whether Neuheisel would survive that weekend, let alone the season, is now the team to beat.

"It's not about vindication," Neuheisel said. "I enjoy coming to work, I enjoy the guys I coach and I enjoy the staff I coach with. All I want to do is go to work and fix what is broken. Obviously a lot was broken on that Thursday night and we've worked hard to get it corrected. We're not perfect yet, but we're getting closer to being a good team."

Neuheisel might enjoy coming to work, but if it were up to fans, he wouldn't have been able to do that after UCLA's dismal performance at Arizona. But a funny thing happened to UCLA as their season was circling the drain -- they rallied and put together consecutive impressive victories.

It wasn't perfect Saturday against Arizona State. The Bruins had crucial turnovers and costly penalties that nullified big plays. But with the bottom about to fall out, they found a way to win with a thrilling final drive. And it is exactly the kind of game past UCLA teams would have lost.

Credit goes to hitting rock bottom two weeks ago in Arizona.

"It kind of made us look in the mirror and kind of evaluate what we needed to do to get better and I think we did that, to a man," quarterback Kevin Prince said. "We didn't point fingers and didn't blame anybody for what was going wrong, we just kind of looked at ourselves and what we can do to fix the situation and make ourselves better. We had a huge game last week against Cal and this was an even bigger one."

And now not only does Neuheisel get a little bit longer to turn down the heat on those calling for his job, he may actually be able to sway those of the opinion that his hiring was a mistake. He certainly has an argument now after getting the team to keep believing when nobody else did.

And nobody can ever question that Neuheisel, often criticized for believing too much when nobody else did, never lost faith in the idea that UCLA could play good football.

"If it were easy, everybody would do it," he said. "I don't know how many times I've said that to myself, but you have to keep finding a way to believe that something good is going to happen. You keep working hard to make sure that everybody understands the fundamentals that are required to play the game successfully and you keep coaching it."

The Bruins are now one victory away from becoming bowl eligible, one of the presumed goals that UCLA needs to achieve in order for Neuheisel to retain his job. They have also showed a marked improvement in level of play, defeating a top-20 team in the heat of a conference title race.

And the fact that they rallied around their embarrassing loss instead of throwing in the towel on the season is a credit to the leadership of the team, and that starts with Neuheisel.

"Coach Neuheisel is our coach and we're sticking with him," cornerback Andrew Abbott said. "This is his team and he's sticking with us. Because of that, it's paying off for us right now."

It easily could have gone the other way for the Bruins, but Neuheisel's relentless optimism didn't let that happen. He created an us-against-the-world mentality in the locker room and the players bought in. They fed off of all the talk that their coach was going to get fired. They thrived on having to scratch and claw their way back to respectability.

"The media and the fans can say what they want, but it all comes down to the guys on this team," said offensive lineman Mike Harris. "I feel like we can beat any team if we go out there on Saturdays and just execute, stay focused and stay aggressive. We have the talent and the will to do what we want to do."

What they want to do now is win next week. Nobody is saying much about winning the Pac-12 title just yet. Most of the talk is about beating Utah next week in Salt Lake City. And about staying focused. And about continuing to rally behind their embattled coach and around their embarrassing performance in Tucson.

"All that negative stuff, all we can do is use that as fuel to hit the next guy," running back Derrick Coleman said. "I'm still mad about that Arizona game two weeks later. That hit me in the gut bad. I still have that nasty taste in my mouth and it's not going to go away until the end of the season when I have that ring."

Rings are funny things to be talking about for a team headed for the cellar two weeks ago.

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLA.