TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—Arizona fired its coach thanks to a season that had careened out of control.
The Wildcats could be in line to put another coach’s job in jeopardy with a win: UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel.
Their season teetering between a potential turnaround and another disappointment, the Bruins are facing what may be their most pivotal game of the season Thursday night in the desert.
Win and UCLA still has a shot at claiming the Pac-12’s South Division. Lose, to a team that hasn’t won a conference game this season, and the Bruins (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12) could put Neuheisel a little closer to the fire.
“It makes you nervous, but at the same time, that’s what you ask for,” UCLA linebacker Sean Westgate said. “If it’s a win-or-lose, do-or-die-type deal, it’s always more fun, more interesting, and it puts that much more stress and pressure on you. That’s where the leadership has to take hold.”
Neuheisel was the quarterback when UCLA won the 1984 Rose Bowl and returned to Southern California with the impetus of returning the Bruins to their glory days.
It didn’t go quite as planned through the first three years: UCLA finished no better than eighth in the Pac-10.
Despite an inconsistent run through the first season of the reconfigured Pac-12, the Bruins still have a shot at playing in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.
At 2-1 in conference, UCLA is just a half game behind Arizona State and Southern California. The Sun Devils have a bye this week and the Trojans are playing a nonconference game against Notre Dame, so a win would pull the Bruins into a tie for the Pac-12 South lead.
USC isn’t eligible for the postseason, so that would essentially leave UCLA and Arizona State playing for a spot in the conference title game with a potential trip to the Rose Bowl on the line.
Lose and it gets tough for the Bruins.
Lose to the Wildcats and the Bruins will need to win four of those games to get to seven games and a bowl or three to become bowl-eligible, which won’t be guaranteed with the so-so run UCLA has had in recent years.
Playing under the bright lights of a national audience at night, the Bruins need a big win in a big way.
“All of us as competitors see that as an opportunity to shake the shackles of a tough spell and use that to signal a new beginning,” Neuheisel said. “When you get a new beginning, it’s like anything else: You feel better, things are looser and it’s fun again.”
Fun is what interim coach Tim Kish has tried to re-instill in the Wildcats since Mike Stoops was fired on Oct. 10.
Arizona (1-5, 0-4) had gone into a funk under Stoops, losing its final five games last season and its only win this year was over Northern Arizona, an FCS school. Coming off a loss to then-winless Oregon State, the Wildcats’ 10th straight to an FBS opponent, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne fired Stoops midway through his eighth season and handed the reins over to Kish, Stoops’ defensive coordinator.
The Wildcats had extra time to adjust to Kish since Stoops was fired at the beginning of the bye week, and the interim coach has tried to make the game more enjoyable for the players with a looser atmosphere and by putting them through more game-like situations in practice.
“We created a little bit of calmness out there from an atmosphere standpoint, and we certainly injected an element of fun into practice and games,” Kish said. “That was my mission.”
Arizona needed something to happen.
Despite having one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Nick Foles—2,255 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions—the Wildcats have struggled to protect him and have almost no running game. The defense has been abysmal—in part because of injuries and a brutal schedule that included three straight top-10 opponents—ranking 116th in the nation, allowing nearly 488 yards per game.
One aspect Kish wanted to address right away was special teams.
Arizona has been haunted by special teams mistakes the past two seasons, so Kish switched some of the coaching duties around. He also went with a new kicker, turning to third-string senior John Bonano after Alex Zendejas and Jaime Salazar struggled.
With over a week to digest Stoops’ firing and Kish’s changes, the Wildcats can’t wait to get back onto the field.
“The bye week helps a lot going through the grieving process, getting back to a sense of normalcy and the preparation and the grind of a game is definitely good for us,” Arizona secondary coach Ryan Walters said. “Energy has been awesome out here, the guys have been responding well.”
Neuheisel is hoping his players can match that energy. A lot could be riding on it.