LOS ANGELES — Even after every loss, mistake and disappointment for UCLA this season, the Bruins head into Saturday's visit from No. 20 Arizona State with the chance to take the lead in the Pac-12 South.
Just don't expect Rick Neuheisel to talk about the race. The veteran coach realizes he's not in position to put emphasis on anything except one more victory after last weekend's impressive win over California.
"We cannot go back, now that we know what we're capable of when we focus and put our full attention towards the task at hand," Neuheisel said Monday. "That's what we're excited about doing."
The Bruins (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12) could win back-to-back games for the first time since early last season if they sneak up on the Sun Devils (6-2, 4-1) at the Rose Bowl. The win would put UCLA into a tie in the South standings with Arizona State, and the Bruins would control their own destiny with three conference games remaining.
Neuheisel tried to rally his team around a similar notion two weeks ago, and they responded with a humiliatingly bad performance at Arizona. He lay off the Pac-12 talk last week, and the Bruins came out with perhaps their best game of the season, with the defense forcing five turnovers by the Golden Bears and getting a season-high three sacks while holding a solid passing offense with two star receivers to 199 yards.
So why are the Bruins so inconsistent deep in Neuheisel's fourth season?
"I just want to attribute it to a lack of complete focus," he said. "You start thinking about other things. And I take complete responsibility. I was the one that brought up the race, and blah blah blah. At the end of the day, this is about Arizona State and UCLA squaring off."
Neuheisel is cautiously confident the Bruins have taken a step forward — but he also realizes he's been wrong about that before.
The Bruins haven't won back-to-back games since beating Texas and Washington State early in the 2010 season, followed by six losses in their final seven games. They've alternated wins and losses every week this season, including three straight blowout defeats.
"We are 0 for 3 in terms of following up a victory with another of that kind of effort," Neuheisel said. "We now have our fourth chance, and we shouldn't squander it. That doesn't necessarily guarantee victory, but it gives us our best chance to attack it."
The Bruins will be relatively healthy when they face Arizona State. Oft-injured quarterback Kevin Prince somehow emerged unscathed from a 163-yard rushing performance against Cal, finally maximizing the potential of the pistol offense Neuheisel copied from Nevada last year.
Neuheisel has figured out that much of the Wolf Pack's success with that modified shotgun scheme was due to the running abilities of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, now with the San Francisco 49ers. Prince is an aggressive runner by nature with a disdain for sliding, but his injury history had limited his success on the ground until he ran all over the Bears.
"Kevin did a great job, and he got better as the game wore on," Neuheisel said. "Remember, he's a 230-pound guy. You call a (running) back 230 pounds, you say, 'Wow, that guy is a load to bring down.' Kevin is the same."
The Bruins expect to have the services of safety Dietrich Riley, who was knocked senseless while making a tackle in the fourth quarter against Cal, eventually going off the field on a stretcher. He spent the night in a hospital, but Neuheisel said Riley "looked absolutely fine" on Sunday.