You don’t have to be a historian to recognize a truism of Pac-10/12 football: It’s a lot easier to carve out success when one or both of the schools in Los Angeles is undergoing a rough patch.
As good as Don James was at Washington, he was also aided by the churn of coaches at USC, four of whom got fired in succession. The Trojans weren’t at their peak under guys like Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and John Robinson.
James’ career at the UW roughly paralleled that of Terry Donahue at UCLA, and Donahue was a worthy adversary. But in Washington’s run of three straight Rose Bowls (1990-92), the Bruins were only 20-14.
Or, consider the 1999 Stanford Rose Bowl team coached by (hold those rotten tomatoes, guys) Tyrone Willlingham. USC was struggling mightily under Paul Hackett, and UCLA, headed for hard times under Bob Toledo, was 4-7. So getting to Pasadena was eminently more doable.
When Mike Price piloted WSU to Rose Bowls in 1997 and 2002, USC wasn’t a factor the first time, and it was just on the cusp of getting cranked up under Pete Carroll in the second one.
All of which is preamble to this notion: Right now could be a great opening for somebody like Washington to exploit.
Spending last weekend in LA, I could feel the unease around the two programs there. Radio hosts discussed the apparent disconnect between USC’s touted running back, Dillon Baxter, and his coach, Lane Kiffin. There was speculation about whether Monte Kiffin’s style of NFL defense works for USC against the spread offenses of college. And I know that the senior Kiffin is getting outside advice to hang ’em up, because with the 30-scholarships-in-three-years sanctions about to kick in with the next signing class, it figures to get worse at USC.
At the Rose Bowl, meanwhile, you get a weird feeling watching UCLA. Granted, the Bruins were beat up, and their ever-present quarterback injuries/issues are still there (Richard Brehaut fractured an ankle). But something just isn’t right with the Bruins; it’s almost as if they aren’t practicing as much as everybody else (obviously, they are). WSU moved the ball up and down the field, did a decent job of playing defense except for about three big plays, and would have won the game if it had converted down close.
Clearly, Rick Neuheisel’s job is on the line, and some believe his best hope is that UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero doesn’t feel he has the cash to pay him off and make a change. But the schedule gets easier now — for one thing, the Bruins don’t play Oregon — and Neuheisel’s team, at 3-3, is plenty capable of getting to the post-season.
It’s hardly a dynamic duo in the Southland right now. Oregon and Stanford are exploiting that weakness, but the Huskies, being able to tout their stadium renovation and on a competitive rise, may be poised to wedge out their own territory as the LA schools waver.