Answers are out there for UCLA
Another loss, this one to Arizona State, has Neuheisel searching for what to do next
TEMPE, Ariz. -- His smile is a little duller these days. His voice, a little softer.
Rick Neuheisel is still positive, and he still believes.
It's just not clear anymore what exactly he believes in.
The Pistol offense?
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow?
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough?
"And then we have to make some decisions as to how we go forward."
"How we go forward," as Neuheisel put it, is kind of the nice way of saying that after missing the postseason for the second time in three years, nobody's job is completely secure.
In Neuheisel's mind, those decisions should be based on analysis and evaluation. He says he believes there are answers out there and he's smart enough to figure them out.
After next week's finale against USC, he'll simply put this disappointing season on trial, question all the witnesses, then use case law to make a ruling.
"I'm as competitive as anybody you know," he said. "Am I hurting? Am I angry? Am I disappointed? Absolutely. All of the above. But I can't lose my cool or composure as if that's going to fix the problem.
"It's going to get fixed with careful analysis about how we're going about putting the pieces together to be a championship-caliber team. That's going to be the fix. I wish I could've had the fix earlier. I take full responsibility. I just know that there is an answer.
"This is a great university, it's got great tradition, it can rise again. We just have to do it with great recruiting, good plans and then execute the plans against the top opponents."
He means every word of what he's saying. It's how he's able to summon a smile after a loss like Friday, when his team squandered a 17-0 first-quarter lead and a career day from sophomore quarterback Richard Brehaut.
He believes every word of what he's saying.
And he's right -- there are answers out there.
The problem is, those answers aren't going to be revealed by reason.
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To go forward, Neuheisel first has to look within. To figure out what and who in the program he has spent three years trying to rebuild he believes in.
It has been clear for a long time that he and Chow haven't been completely on the same page about what form UCLA's offense should take or even which quarterback should lead that offense.
It's also been clear for some time now that Neuheisel and his staff didn't have much faith in the players they inherited from Karl Dorrell.
It's hard to say how he feels about Bullough, other than that he promoted him when Dewayne Walker left to be the head coach at New Mexico State, made him recruiting coordinator and recently extended his contract by a year.
That's a fairly large vote of confidence, but after Friday's loss, in which Bullough's defense was shredded by Arizona State's backup quarterback, Neuheisel didn't mince his words.
"I have to look at the tape as to how they caught up, but they certainly caught up," he said. "We couldn't slow them down defensively. This was not a good day for UCLA defense, that's a fact. We'll have to look and see why. Was it the scheme? Personnel? Matchups?
"We have to ask ourselves those hard questions. But 17-0 late in the first quarter is a good start in a football game and one you'd like to be good enough to hang on to."
And that Pistol offense we heard so much about in the offseason?
It has improved UCLA's running game. On Friday, sophomore running back Johnathan Franklin became the first UCLA back since Chris Markey in 2006 to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
So UCLA is a run-oriented team like Nevada, the team that popularized the Pistol formation, right?
Hard to say, because this also was the game in which Brehaut tied Troy Aikman's record for passes completed (32) and Dennis Dummit's record for passes attempted (56) after no UCLA quarterback had attempted more than 37 passes in any of UCLA's first 10 games.
"I think it was something we had to do because we were down," Brehaut said. "Obviously, once we were down, we can't be running the ball and wasting time. So we just had to throw the ball, and that's something we were able to do well today."
UCLA did it so well, it made you wonder why the Bruins hadn't been doing that all season.
"That's something for you guys to ask and answer," Brehaut said. "I just run what's called."
Taken separately, all of these are workable issues.
Taken all together, they speak to a lack of cohesiveness and confidence than can make the difference in so many of those tough but winnable games UCLA has had trouble winning this season.
Last week, I sat in a room with UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland and asked what he'd learned from his team's 14-18 season in 2009-10.
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One of the issues he was most clear on was that he regretted switching to a zone defense from the stout, man-to-man defense he'd believed in for most of his career. Howland had made the switch midway through the season because it had become obvious his team wasn't athletic enough to play man-to-man defense in the Pac-10.
"That was just doing everything we could to try to win games," he said. "At the time, and you're always living in the moment, but for long term I wish I wouldn't have.
"I just think you need to be committed to what you do. In other words, if you're a zone team, like Syracuse or Arizona State, you have to be committed to it."
Completely different sport, and a completely different personality in the coach's chair. But the sentiment is universal.
Does it mean Neuheisel needs to make sweeping changes? No.
Does that mean Chow needs to be fired? No.
It means that whatever Neuheisel decides his team needs to do next season to get better, there can be no hesitation or second-guessing.
If Chow is back, there can be no more rumbling beneath the surface about he and Neuheisel not seeing eye to eye.
Neuheisel is right. There are answers out there, and he is smart enough to figure them out.
It's just that those answers have to come from within.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
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