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Originally published Wednesday, September 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

Rick Neuheisel already making his mark at UCLA

Pac-10 football felt a little different Tuesday. It had a little more bounce, a little more juice. Suddenly, it wasn't just USC over here...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Pac-10 football felt a little different Tuesday. It had a little more bounce, a little more juice. Suddenly, it wasn't just USC over here and its minions over there, groveling for the Poinsettia Bowl.

You could look down the road and see UCLA giving USC a hard time for big prizes — no, not right now, not this season, but maybe sometime in the next couple of years.

Somehow, Rick Neuheisel does that. In his first game back in college football at UCLA on Monday night, he nursed a team with a leaky offensive line and a quarterback who threw four first-half interceptions to a conquest of Tennessee.

After the Bruins' 27-24 overtime victory was done, Neuheisel grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd. He was Neuheisel being Neuheisel. Other than in 2006, when Karl Dorrell's Bruins stunned USC, when has UCLA elbowed the Trojans out of the spotlight in L.A. since the rise of Troy under Pete Carroll?

Asked a day later on the weekly Pac-10 conference call about his public, postgame appearance before the fans, Neuheisel said, "They had asked me if I wanted to do that on an every-game basis. When I was coaching at Washington, we had a thing called the 'Fifth Quarter.' At first, I was a little leery about it. Coaches don't usually like to go and face the firing squad if they're not successful. But I thought it was a good way to stand in there and maybe defuse things before they got going.

"I agreed with the UCLA folks we'd do that. It happened it was a good place to be last night."

You talk about a hot-button guy in Seattle, Neuheisel is it. Whether you love him or despise him, give him this: Few coaches are better at massaging a team's psyche and helping it find a way to the winner's circle.

I scorned him as a coach five years ago, somebody who fell into the wondrous Marques Tuiasosopo, whom he had recruited for Colorado to be a defensive back. Then there are all the questions about his predilection for skill rather than nasty in recruiting.

But he helped engineer 15 fourth-quarter comeback wins at Washington, and tacked another pelt onto his wall against the Vols. Combine that knack for timing — delivering a line, if you will — with the wizardry of coordinators Norm Chow and DeWayne Walker, and you could almost hear some coughing and squirming at other Pac-10 sites.

Before quarterback Kevin Craft turned it around, his night was mindful of the celebrated TV clip from the mid-'90s, when Neuheisel ranted at Colorado quarterback John Hessler. This time, after one of Craft's interceptions, Neuheisel was caught by TV cameras uttering an unmistakable four-letter invective.

"I'm probably more critical of the quarterback position than any on the field," Neuheisel said. "I played it. I wanted Kevin to realize he doesn't have to go win the game, just manage the game. Punting is a good play."

Across town, even Pete Carroll admitted to watching the Bruins with interest.

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"Great game, great finish," Carroll said. "I'm glad it happened."

Knee or no?

Once Washington fans had finishing raging over the opening-game performance by the Huskies at Oregon, they debated the final minute, when Ducks quarterback Chris Harper dodged into the end zone, finishing a 44-10 victory.

Did Mike Bellotti pour it on Washington? On a call Tuesday, I asked him whether he hesitated before authorizing the touchdown play.

"I considered it, actually, taking a knee," said the Oregon coach. "I talked to our coaches and they said, 'Let's let the kids play.'

"We had third-string guys in the game. We're a no-huddle team. We ran the ball every single play [at the end]. I don't know that that was trying to run it up. I have great respect for coach [Tyrone] Willingham."

Actually, Harper was fourth-string when Nate Costa was a healthy starter.

I lean toward Bellotti's side. Sportsmanship shouldn't be outmoded in 2008, but taking a knee is. It's like the college football equivalent of women curtsying. I can't see winging the ball deep with a big lead, but I like what Bobby Bowden, the Florida State coach, used to say (back when he had teams that had enough offense to be accused of running it up):

"Not mah job to stop mah offense. It's yo job."

Only if Bellotti felt the final touchdown would make a scintilla of difference to the future of the embattled Willingham should he have pulled back. If you're on the short end, how good do you feel about losing 37-10 and having the other team say, "There, there," and knee the ball inside the 10?

"I've been in those [losing] situations before," Bellotti said. "I don't necessarily want them to take a knee to end the game."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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