Pac-12 championship caps eventful week

By By Anne M. Peterson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1 2011 12:56 p.m. MST

FILE - In this file photo taken Oct. 1, 2011, UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel walks off the field after Stanford defeated UCLA 45-19 in an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif. UCLA fired him after four seasons in charge of his alma mater. Neuheisel will be allowed to coach the Bruins in Friday's Pac-12 title game at Oregon, the school announced Monday, Nov. 28, 2011.

Paul Sakuma, File, Associated Press

The Pac-12 Conference's first championship game caps an eventful week in the league — so eventful that the game itself between No. 8 Oregon and UCLA seems a bit anticlimactic.

The Ducks are so heavily favored that the attention Friday night may not be on Autzen Stadium's field, but on the sidelines, where Rick Neuheisel will oversee his final game as the Bruins' head coach.

Neuheisel was fired following last weekend's 50-0 loss to No. 9 Southern California. It was part of a wave of coaching moves in the conference. Around the time Neuheisel's dismissal was announced, Arizona State let go of Dennis Erickson.

Then Washington State parted ways with Paul Wulff, and the Cougars quickly hired former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach a day later.

Neuheisel said he doesn't want the Bruins' appearance in the title game to turn into a "Win One For Rick" crusade.

"That sounds like a bad B movie. It need not be about me. It's always been about us," he said. "It's always been about the mission and the passion that a team, if you're really engaged with a team, can bring about. I'm just excited to be on the team for one more try."

For their last practice before departing for Eugene, the Bruins carried Neuheisel off Spaulding Field. Then the coach teared up while speaking to reporters.

"It's meaningful when you work to create relationships, and you want desperately for them to achieve what they're capable of," he said. "Despite the fact that we didn't win enough games, I think they are achieving as people. I'm extremely proud to be a part of this team, and looking forward to — hopefully — a grand finish."

The reality is that UCLA (6-6, 5-4) faces a major challenge in the Ducks (10-2, 8-1).

"I believe our plan is a good one. Now the devil will be in the details, making sure we do all the little things right, because that's what it's going to take to beat a team as accomplished as Oregon," Neuheisel said. I know there's no such thing as a perfect game, but we're going to have to get darn close, and that's an exciting challenge, especially given the stakes."

The Ducks are playing for their third straight conference championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2. Oregon appeared to be in the running for a shot at a spot in the BCS championship game for the second straight season, but the Ducks also fell victim to USC with a 38-35 loss at Autzen on Nov. 19.

The Ducks were trying hard this week not to overlook the Bruins on the road to Pasadena.

"Not at all because we're not in the Rose Bowl yet," quarterback Darron Thomas said. "We got a big game this week and if we go off looking to the Rose Bowl we might not make it there."

Thomas anchors an offense that is putting up big numbers again this season. The Ducks are averaging 510.58 yards in total offense a game, sixth in the nation. They are fifth in rushing offense with an average of 291 yards, and third in scoring with an average of 45.9 points per game.

Thomas himself has 27 touchdown passes with just five interceptions this season. The junior is just two TDs short of Danny O'Neil's career record of 62 with the Ducks from 1991-94.

Running back LaMichael James is the nation's top running back with an average of 142.7 yards a game. A Heisman Trophy finalist last season as a sophomore, James fell out of the running for the most part this season because he missed two games with a dislocated right elbow.

The Bruins, ranked 84th in the nation among FBS teams in total defense, are ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing 178 yards per game.

The Bruins have proven this season that they've been able to rebound after big losses, recording wins in each game after falling to Stanford, Arizona and Utah. But they're not taking any solace in that stat.

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