The UCLA roller coaster
The UCLA season, so far, has been a season of extreme highs and lows
As UCLA prepares to begin the second half of the football season, the Bruins find themselves in a curious place: Pretty much exactly where they started.
After a first half filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows, UCLA sits at 3-3 and is a .500 team still searching for an identity.
By the time they take the field Thursday night at top-ranked Oregon, the Bruins will have had 11 days to ponder the topsy-turvy first half and analyze the success and shortcomings.
And while those 11 days haven't exactly been smooth sailing, due to the suspensions of two players plus the questionable status of quarterback Kevin Prince and other key players, the time off has given the team a chance to regroup and conjure up the sense of starting over as the Bruins prepare to kick off the second half against the top-ranked team in the country.
"It was such a roller coaster for us the way we were playing that I think we'd like to forget both the good and the bad and just kind of seriously make it a fresh start," safety Tony Dye said. "We'd go from the lowest point possible to going high and then back to low, so it's important to just kind of forget all of it and play like we know how to play."
That starts Thursday night against Oregon, but the Bruins will be short-handed against the most potent offensive team in the country.
Receiver/kick returner Josh Smith and F-back Morrell Presley will be serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Cornerback Sheldon Price is doubtful because of a sprained knee, leaving the Bruins dangerously thin at that position, and receiver Nelson Rosario is also doubtful because of a sprained ankle.
And Prince, whose injuries are as much to blame for the team's inconsistencies as anything, appears unable to play because of lingering pain and swelling in his knee.
Still, there is an ease about UCLA as it approaches this juggernaut Oregon team, the kind of calm that an 11-day soul cleansing at the midway point can give you -- much like a golfer reaching the back nine.
"I feel like that bye week gave us a chance to catch our breath a little bit and regroup and get our minds right," center Ryan Taylor said. "It was tough to sit on that last loss for so long, but I feel like it was for the best. It made us appreciate a lot of the little things we took for granted and humbled us a little bit."
"That loss" was a 35-7 drubbing by Cal that was a slap in the face for the Bruins and their fans. UCLA was riding a three-game win streak into that game -- a streak that included an impressive 34-12 victory at Texas -- and had legitimate hopes of contending for the Pac-10 title, but came out of the streak still uncertain about how good they really are.
The loss to Cal and the victory over Texas epitomized the first half for UCLA -- a six-game stretch peppered with enigmatic play on both sides of the ball. Steadying the level of play has become a priority for the second half.
"One of the things we need to focus on is playing more consistent football," linebacker Patrick Larimore said. "Coming from a defensive perspective, we need to make sure we're executing our assignments every game instead of half the games."
Inexperience on both sides of the ball has been a factor in the inconsistent play. The offensive line entered the season with eight combined starts. The defensive front seven had only one player with starting experience. The growing pains came in the form of Jekyll-and-Hyde type play.
But now that the midway point of the season has arrived, the inexperience factor goes out the window.
"I don't see that as an excuse anymore," Dye said. "It was being used as an excuse beforehand and, shoot, we're at Game 7 now, right? Everybody has played football and it's no longer an excuse."
The new Pistol offense also shares some of the blame for the inconsistency. When it worked, it was wonderful as UCLA averaged 322.3 yards rushing in its three victories, but only 123.6 yards in its three losses.
Add in a passing game that couldn't respond -- the Bruins averaged a meager 95.5 yards passing in their six games -- and it led to an offense that had troubles when the running game ran into problems.
"When ... things get one-sided and you have to get back chunks of yards in a hurry, then you get yourself in a one-dimensional game, now you're in trouble given where we are currently," coach Rick Neuheisel said.
And where they are currently is anyone's guess.
"I think some things have been better that expected and I think some things haven't been what we expected," Neuheisel said. "We're 3-3. We're a .500 team. There are those that would have said we'd be less than that and there are those that hoped we'd be better than that, me included."
"But we can improve and must improve if we're going to have a successful second half of the season."
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.