It happened again Saturday night, when Jerry Neuheisel came off the bench to lead UCLA to a dramatic win over Texas, 20-17.
It was pure Hollywood. Even Neuheisel looks like he belongs in central casting more than on the field at AT&T Stadium.
But if there were ever someone who earned the right to triumphantly be lifted on to the shoulders of his teammates after the game it’s Neuheisel.
It’s funny about Neuheisel. In practice he doesn’t look fantastic. Some days he gets the job done efficiently. Other days – well, not so much. His physical limitations sometimes are apparent, and because of that, if he’s not flawless in his decision-making, there isn’t a great deal of room for error.
Last season, Neuheisel ran one series, and he looked efficient doing it. But that just isn’t going to prepare a 22-year old to walk onto the field at AT&T Stadium, see his image appear on that Mega-Jumbotron, and face a physically- and athletically-intimidating Texas defense. But Neuheisel didn’t look nervous at all. There weren’t many jitters when he threw his first bubble screen, one of many on the night. He didn’t even look very rattled when, on a few plays, he was running for his life to avoid a Texas blitz.
And then there was the pass. UCLA’s Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone had set up Texas all night. Bubble screen after bubble screen. And then, the pump fake, and Jordan Payton peels off down the field. The ball seemed like it was in the air for about 28 seconds. Watching, you had enough time to worry whether Payton would get nervous waiting for the ball to come down. But it did, and safely, warmly, in Payton’s arms.
It would have been a time, too, that perhaps Neuheisel, being the Rudy-esque, back-up quarterback, might have had some nerves that would possibly affect the throw. But Neuheisel acted like he was throwing the ball to Payton in his backyard.
It’s very reminiscient of Neuheisel’s father. The former walk-on wasn’t vastly talented when he took over the reins of the UCLA offense back in the 1980s, but very smart and savvy – and the one elite trait father Rick always had going for him was composure. Nothing ever seemed to rattle him. Well, genetics worked out in UCLA’s favor Saturday, because Jerry clearly inherited that same calmness and poise of his dad.
The win, overall, wasn’t what you would have wanted in terms of how the team performed against a struggling Texas program. But beyond the score of 20-17, and even beyond the stats, this game provided a glimpse of the team and the coaching that is worthy of a top-12 ranking. It didn’t sustain it throughout the night consistently enough, and there was an old bugaboo (penalties) that really damaged the entire effort. But you have to take into consideration that UCLA lost its Heisman-Trophy candidate quarterback Brett Hundley halfway through the first quarter. To have your back-up quarterback play like Neuheisel did, and the offense and defense both reach down and find something in the second half that changed the momentum, and the ability to ultimately wear down the Longhorns, you have to say that the Bruins showed more of the intangibles and mental make-up of a top-12 team than in anytime in recent history.
|Paul Perkins (USA Today)|
The most significant offensive development, though, was UCLA finding a running game. It ran for 217 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and it did so because UCLA’s offensive line found its footing. So far this season, UCLA’s running game consisted of far too many plays for a loss, and then an occasional 6-yard gain, mostly because Paul Perkins worked hard for some yards after contact. But against Texas, plays that usually go for a -1 went for a +3. UCLA’s line was getting a push against what was perhaps the best defensive line it’s faced this season. And it surged in the second half, getting stronger, carving out room for a running game that gained 182 of its 217 yards in the last 30 minutes. Of course, much of that came on one play, when Perkins busted open for a 58-yard gain on the first play of the second half. It kind of set the tone for the second half, that UCLA was going to have to smash it down Texas’s throat if it were going to win with its back-up quarterback, and it pretty much did. Even without that Perkins run of 58 yards, though, UCLA averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the second half, and that will get it done. It at least provided Neuheisel enough breathing room that he didn’t have to convert too many third-and-longs and have to do it under pressure.
Perkins, too, was in beast mode in the second half. Not only did he bust that 58-yarder, but he carried the ball 16 times in the second half, and looked stronger as the game went on. He doesn’t have blazing speed, of course, but he’s gotten so strong that the first tackler almost always bounces off him, and then he has just enough shake to make one cut and get up field. In other words, he’s almost the perfect back for UCLA’s offense. While Neuheisel is getting the headlines for the Texas game, and deservedly so, it has to be said that Perkins was the workhorse – the reliable workhorse that will hold onto the ball -- that won the game yard by yard. He’s looking more Jonathan Franklin-esque with every game.
The other offensive development in this game was also offensive line-related. After allowing Texas to get some pressure on Hundley and Neuheisel early, the OL protected its quarterback far better as the game wore on. It was a bit strange that Texas looked like it dialed back its pressure a bit, especially strange since you’d think they’d want to rattle Neuheisel. But nonetheless, UCLA’s OL had a very good half of pass protection in the second half, which was a huge part of UCLA’s second-half advantage.
There were a few offensive moves that were head-scratchers, that probably weren’t the responsibility of Mazzone and more personnel-related. Putting Jordon James in the game late, when ball security is the utmost importance, was a questionable move. Yeah, Perkins had just run off a 30-yard screen and might have needed a blow, but James wouldn’t be the guy to opt to with 5 minutes left in the game and UCLA driving toward the winning touchdown. Putting Eddie Vanderdoes at tailback for a first-down run is a bit strange. But overall, there wasn’t too much to nitpick about with the offense.
The defense had a spotty performance in the first half, allowing Texas and its quarterback Tyrone Swoops to do what everyone in the building knew they were going to do. The Texas offense looked like the Memphis offense from a week ago, getting Swoopes out of the pocket on rolls, enabling him to find dragging receivers, or enough time to find a second receiver downfield. We can say now, after three games, that UCLA’s pass coverage is spotty, with the zone having some considerable soft spots, particularly in the seams. It would be pretty easy to anticipate, too, that Swoopes, who’s a rookie, would be susceptible to pressure, but UCLA Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich seemed hesitant to dial up more pressure in the first half. A comfortable Swoopes, then, went 13-for-15 in the first half. The defining play of the first half was, on 4th and 8 at the UCLA 38, Swoopes had plenty of time to fine John Harris down the field for a 33-yard gain at UCLA’s five-yard line. UCLA had been making a defensive stand, but then, on 4th and 8, it sent just three pass rushers, against what wasn’t a max protection call for Texas – meaning that Texas had many receivers in the pattern and it was only a matter of time before Swoopes found one, and he had plenty of time to do it. That passive call on the part of Ulbrich was devastating. Texas scored and went up 10-3, and all the energy in the vast cavern of AT&T Stadium seemed to be tinged with burnt orange.
|Jim Mora (USA Today)|
It’s going to be really hard to not keep true freshman safety Jaleel Wadood off the field after his performance Saturday. With two DB starters, Anthony Jefferson and Randall Goforth, in street clothes, the responsibility was handed to Wadood, a 5-9, pretty scrawny freshman starting his first game, on national television in the AT&T Mothership. If you’re talking about not being the kind of player that gets rattled and has composure, Wadood is it. It also helps that he’s immensely talented, with an instinct for the ball that is very rare. He was all over the field, and had perhaps one of the best games for a UCLA safety in run support that we can remember, getting 9 tackles.
Every time UCLA lines up in punt or kick-off return we think Ishmael Adams is going to break it. He did at a vastly opportune moment Saturday, with Texas ahead, 17-13, and only 3 minutes left in the game. The 45-yard punt return set up UCLA’s offense at the Texas 33-yard line. It was a beautiful return, but you have to also give some credit to Adams’ fellow Oaks-Christian brother, Cameron Judge, who laid out a very legal, crack-back type of block that sprung Adams. In fact, with Payton catching the winning touchdown pass just a few moments later, Oaks Christian was definitely representing.
If we’re doling out praise, too, it has to go to the Texas captain who, quite obtusely, blew the coin flip and opted to give UCLA the ball to open both the first half and second half. It essentially gave UCLA another possession, and it’s particularly stinging to Texas that the first possession of the second half resulted in a UCLA drive for a touchdown, which would have made the difference on the scoreboard.
Perhaps the primary criticism leveled at UCLA were the crippling penalties. UCLA only had four on the night, but they made them count. Two bad penalties in the first quarter took away what probably would have been two dominant scoring drives. On UCLA’s initial series, a face mask by Malcolm Bunche negated a 31-yard run by Hundley. On UCLA’s next series, an illegal formation negated a 44-yard completion to Payton. And it did something else, too: It put UCLA in a third and 9, which made Hundley have to scramble, a scramble that led to the hyper-extension of his elbow.
Ultimately, though, it all set up a great, Hollywood-esque story for UCLA and Neuheisel.
UCLA Head Coach Jim Mora compelled his players to put Neuheisel on their shoulders. Mora, a son of a coach like Neuheisel, who similarly wasn’t necessarily gifted with overwhelming talent, relates to Neuheisel, sees himself in him. Mora said, "He's a coach's kid. He grew up in the game. We're the same man. We're the same people."
So, it meant even more when Mora had his players lift Neuheisel onto their shoulders. Of course, he wanted to reward Neuheisel, probably feeling almost father-esque for him. But it was also a bit of a validation of himself.
It was also a testament to the type of people both the 53-year old coach and 22-year-old back-up quarterback are. After the game, in the bowels of AT&T, Mora went by me in a golf cart, beaming with a big smile, but also looking exhausted. He yelled out to me, “Toward the end I almost threw up.” Yeah, but you didn’t, coach; you had that same type of Neuheisel-esque composure.