Bruins back on track
UCLA hopes trip to EagleBank Bowl signals a return to prominence
They were, in a way, an afterthought.
The last team in America to make a bowl game, and only because the first team out -- Army -- couldn't play itself in.
So maybe it wasn't the best idea from a public-relations standpoint for UCLA's players to revive a longtime school tradition by going "over the wall" to ditch one of their first practices in preparation for Tuesday's EagleBank Bowl against Temple in Washington, D.C.
But while it may not have looked good to outsiders, Bruins players passionately defended the decision.
"People who don't know our team and don't play on our team don't know anything," said star safety Rahim Moore, who led the nation with nine interceptions this season. "It's not like we came out here like, 'Oh, forget practice.' Some [seniors] wanted to do it, and it was their last chance to do it. I was ready to practice, if they were ready to Wall, I gotta ride with the team."
Is it an odd tradition? Sure. Outdated? Probably. But it goes back to an era when being a UCLA football player in this town meant competing for a Rose Bowl every couple of years.
Back, coincidentally, to when head coach Rick Neuheisel was under center and leading UCLA to the 1984 Rose Bowl title. The Bruins have won only one Rose Bowl since.
So in the absence of recent tradition, UCLA's players decided to revive one from more glorious days.
"This happened many years ago," a bemused Neuheisel told reporters after watching his players bolt the practice field on Dec. 15. "Kenny Easley led the group over the wall, and it was a good thing. I enjoyed it more as a player than as a coach I'll be honest with you.
"[But] sometimes coaches forget what it was like as a player. I try not to do that."
In the past decade football-related tradition has been hard to find around Westwood. The Bruins went just 41-43 in Pac-10 Conference play and had just three players go on to become first-round draft picks.
So in UCLA's case, any bowl, any tradition -- no matter how odd or obscure -- is a step in the right direction. Better yet, the players seem to know that as well as anyone.
Asked if he had ever heard of EagleBank, the Washington, D.C.,-area community business bank that is the title sponsor for the game, UCLA starting quarterback Kevin Prince shook his head and laughed.
"No, I hadn't heard of it," he said. "But this game is very important for us. Getting to a bowl was our goal the whole season. We never had a certain bowl in mind, we just wanted to make a bowl.
"We're happy to be where we're at. We know that we don't deserve to be in a bigger bowl because of the way we played, so we're just looking at it as an opportunity to finish with a winning record and get a jump start on next season."
Prince said he feels sufficiently recovered from a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the second half of the Bruins' 28-7 loss to USC on November 28 and limited his workouts for several weeks afterward. Certain throws still hurt his shoulder, but he believes that pain is manageable and that he'll be able to play against the Owls.
By earning the last spot in college football's version of the postseason, UCLA earned another three weeks of practice time. Roughly the same amount of time it will have for spring practice next April.
For a 6-6 team starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback (Prince) and running back (Johnathan Franklin) for most of the season, sophomores (Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario) at wide receiver and a true freshman on the offensive line (Xavier Su'a-Filo), every second of extra practice time is vital.
And contrary to what the ditch day may have implied, UCLA's players are treating the extra time very seriously.
Moore said he hasn't taken one day off since the loss to USC. He was back on the track running sprints and stairs the Monday after the game. He even ran sprints and did agility drills while visiting family in San Jose over Christmas break.
"It doesn't matter what the title of the game is, it's a football game," Moore said. "It's another time to go out there and showcase your talent. It's another interview.
"Every day we have to grow, every interview, every meeting, every snap we have to grow. We're all young, but at the same time we all want to be great so that when the time is right, our time will come."
While Moore's work ethic and motivation is obvious, Neuheisel knew he needed to make the extra practice time as fun as he could for the rest of the team. Not everyone on the roster has the potential of being an early round NFL pick like his talented freshman safety.
So he did what most people do when they're looking for a little extra motivation during a workout: He turned on some music.
"It was awesome, it felt like pregame or something," Moore said. "It made everybody play loose, seeing the redshirts and guys who haven't played yet. It was a good thing. I think we had the best practices we've ever had. We were playing good music, playing around, flying around, hitting, competing, just trying to better each other."
Neuheisel wouldn't say who came up with the song list, but it seemed to be a hit with his players.
"There's a balance always in postseason -- to go win and create further momentum, and the other is to reward the individuals," he said. "You want to make sure that they don't feel like this is overtime.
"The rest of this campus is home vacationing, taking a break. These guys are still out working for the glory of their university. They need a reward. It's up to the coaching staff to make sure this is as fun as it can be. I think we've got the right balance."
If it works, maybe the Bruins will have a new tradition. One that doesn't involve the entire team playing hooky.