BOULDER - Nevada coach Chris Ault is viewed as the father of the "pistol" offense, which requires a dual-threat quarterback to make it armed and dangerous. Ault had to know he was asking his QBs to play Russian roulette, but then college football Saturdays always have been littered with physical risks.
Wanting to beef up UCLA's running game, Coach Rick Neuheisel went to the pistol a year ago and has encountered mixed results. It apparently caused a rift between Neuheisel and legendary offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who left LA for SLC and the same role at Utah. But the change also produced a moderate boost in the Bruins' ground game: their 186.7 rushing yards a game are up from 175.6 in 2010.
But here's the dicey side of Neuheisel's pistol, which has the QB lined up four yards behind center ostensibly to better read the defense and run/pass more effectively: Starter Kevin Prince missed one game after suffering a separated right shoulder and concussion in the opener against Houston, then was out a couple more games after separating his left shoulder on a passing play two weekends later against Texas.
A second QB, junior Richard Brehaut, suffered a fractured fibula in the Washington State game on Oct. 8 and only last week was cleared to resume practice. He didn't play last weekend at Utah, however, leaving Prince to run the offense in the Bruins' puzzling 31-6 loss.
After Prince's second injury in mid-October, Neuheisel, the former CU coach who is in his fourth season at UCLA, told reporters there are "two competing philosophies" in utilizing the pistol: "What do you need to do to be successful, and what do you do to stay safe? First and foremost, you have to be successful."
Neuheisel called Prince "an accomplished runner. It helps everything else go. Now, how much we run him remains the question."
Mike Johnson, who replaced Chow as UCLA's offensive coordinator, also said the Bruins simply are utilizing what they can on his side of the ball: "I don't think we have the team up front to muscle people. Deception (with the pistol) is the way to go . . . (it) puts the quarterback at some risk. It's unfortunate, but that's what we're up against."
A 6-2, 223-pound junior, Prince has averaged just under nine rushing attempts (68 for 306 yards) in eight games. Brehaut (6-2, 226) had run 44 times for 169 yards (six games) before his injury. That's 112 runs by UCLA's QBs this season, and by contrast Colorado starter Tyler Hansen - unquestionably athletic enough to be a pistol QB - has 69 rushing attempts (112 yards) this season.
Neuheisel knows his quarterbacks can be protected with what plays are called, but he added, "The fact that they may get tackled can't be a hindrance to what we do and our play calling."
UCLA's top rushers are tailbacks Jonathan Franklin (69.5 yards a game) and Derrick Coleman (58.5), but game-planning for the Bruins always must take Prince into account. He ran 12 times for only 10 yards last weekend at Utah and completed 12 of 24 passes for 146 yards. He was intercepted twice, giving him six for the season, and sacked three times.
CU defensive coordinator Greg Brown, whose unit faces Prince & Co. Saturday in the Rose Bowl (5:30 p.m. MST, Versus), called preparing for the pistol "to a certain extent, like playing the schemes you face against West Virginia or Oregon. You have to be option sound in the one-back zone read, the split-zone read. And from the two-back (sets), you have the zone option and the split-zone option. Those require everybody to be in the right spot at the right time and take your man.
"If that doesn't happen, you'll look like a fool. And if you do all that, then on the outside if you gang up so much on the run, you leave yourself vulnerable to the pass."
Prince, said Brown, is "smart, big and makes good decisions. He's done a great job with that offense."
FINE HOME FINALE FOR SANDERSFELD: Defensive back Travis Sandersfeld went out with a flourish in the Buffs' Senior Day 48-29 rout of Arizona. With totals adjusted after defensive coaches reviewed game tape, Sandersfeld recorded 14 tackles (11 solo, three for losses), an interception and a sack.
The Pac-12 honored the senior from Limon on Monday, naming him the conference's defensive player of the week. It was the second time this season a CU player has been honored; sophomore receiver Paul Richardson was named offensive player of the week after the Buffs' overtime loss to Cal.
Brown said Sandersfeld "had a special game and I couldn't be happier for him. As hard as he's worked, the injuries he's overcome during his tenure here . . . he is truly one of those people who's as good off the field as he is on. A great person."
Sandersfeld played all 76 defensive snaps against the Wildcats and never lined up at cornerback - his position when the season opened. "He played inside as a safety in regular personnel and then was our nickel . . . he didn't play any corner," Brown said. "He stayed inside and made the calls, made the tackles, made the plays. He was huge for us."
Having played safety previously in his CU career has helped Sandersfeld play where he's needed this season and aid in communications on defense. "That's coach Brown - he's always believed in me, and that helps," Sandersfeld said. "Basically, it's just knowing the defense; when I'm at corner I know what the safeties are doing . . . it all came back pretty much."
Sandersfeld learned of his Pac-12 award at mid-afternoon Monday from a teammate who texted him with the message "congrats." Said Sandersfeld: "At the time I thought, 'For what?' I didn't find out until later . . . it's a great honor and Saturday was a great win for us."
He said the UCLA trip is huge for the Buffs in their quest to end a 23-game out-of-state road losing streak that dates to 2007. "But it's also huge for UCLA; they've got a lot to play for and are going to be coming hard at us. We've got to go in with our heads on and figure out what we need to beat these guys," he said.
CU coach Jon Embree said Sandersfeld "played a great game. Obviously, capping it off with the interception (in the final minute) was good for him. I'm happy for him. He's been missed, not being around. You could tell he's getting his legs back underneath him."
BRUINS CONTROL FATE IN SOUTH: Neuheisel's team was in a somber mood leaving Salt Lake City, but things brightened later that night when Washington State upset slumping Arizona State, 37-27.
UCLA and ASU now are 4-3 in the Pac-12 Conference, with one of the Sun Devils' losses being to the Bruins. Thus, UCLA has the tie-breaking edge if it finishes tied with ASU. UCLA has two remaining games - Saturday vs. CU, Nov. 26 at archrival Southern California. ASU has home games remaining Saturday against Arizona and Nov. 25 against California.
USC is 5-2 in league play (8-2 overall) and could finish with the best record in the South. But the Trojans are ineligible to participate in the conference championship game due to NCAA probation.
At 5-5 overall, the Bruins are within one win of becoming bowl eligible for the second time in Neuheisel's tenure. His 2009 team finished 7-6 after defeating Temple 30-21 in the Eagle Bank Bowl. Neuheisel, a UCLA alumnus, is 20-25 overall, 12-20 in the Pac-12.
ONE CLASSY WILDCAT: During his one season in Tucson, Brown and his family became acquainted with Arizona quarterback Nick Foles. In fact, Grace, the youngest of Brown's two daughters (Hannah is 11, Grace is 9), was infatuated with Foles.
"She's got pictures of him on her wall at home . . . autographs, the whole deal," Brown said with a laugh.
Foles took time before Saturday's to speak with Greg and an initially reluctant Grace, then also made time afterwards to pose for a couple of pictures with the Browns.
"This was after they'd just lost and he'd thrown three interceptions," Greg said. "He's a good guy, a class act . . . you want to see somebody like Nick succeed."
And Brown believes he will. Foles passed for 352 yards against the Buffs and became the Wildcats' career passing yardage leader (9,573). "I think he's a first-round draft choice," Brown said. "He's big, smart and has a strong arm and great touch . . . plus all the intangibles."
BUFF BITS: Embree said he heard from many former Buffs players and supporters after the school's first Pac-12 win. "That was good and so great for our players," Embree said. "I was so happy for those kids." . . . . Tailback Malcolm Creer, injured in the loss at Arizona State on Oct. 29, is set for knee surgery next month. And he's not moping about losing his freshman season after playing in only two games. "I'll come back from this faster and stronger . . . I've got the right mindset about this," he said. Creer had his redshirt pulled the week before his injury . . . . CU offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy says UCLA's defense, which is ninth in the Pac-12 in both points allowed (31.4 a game) and yards allowed (414.2 a game), is heavy on size/speed, but light on gadgetry. "One thing they can do, they can run," Bieniemy said. "They're not a team that's going to try and trick you. They do what they do - they line up, they may bring pressure here or there, but they keep it simple so those guys can play fast." . . . . Embree's former CU coach, Bill McCartney, often said, "There aren't enough wins" - and those words have often registered with Embree during his first season. "That's exactly right," he said, "and you don't know until you go through that." . . . . In addition to Sandersfeld, Embree said linebackers Jon Major and Patrick Mahnke stood out against Arizona: "It was definitely (Major's) most physical game . . . there were a few guys who played really well." Saturday will come close to being an Embree family reunion in the Rose Bowl. His oldest son, Taylor, is a senior receiver at UCLA, and Embree's two other children, his wife and mother will be in LA for the game. Asked Monday who his wife, Natalyn, would root for, Jon said, "I told her to root for her baby. It won't be the first time she's rooted against me - pool, basketball, it's all the same." . . . . At 6-3, Taylor Embree is one of three large targets for UCLA's quarterbacks. The others are 6-5 Nelson Rosario and 6-8 Joseph Fauria, the nephew of former CU tight end Christian Fauria, who played for Neuheisel in Boulder. Taylor Embree has 13 receptions for 152 yards and a touchdown this season, trailing Rosario (42-758-1) and Fauria (22-307-4) . . . . One of Jon Embree's high school dreams was playing in the Rose Bowl - and that briefly concerned him about signing with CU. But with the Buffs now in the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl being a postseason reward, he's happy. He said the game is a mighty motivator for the Californians on CU's roster and the prospects from California that CU is recruiting: "Growing up (in California) you can't help but want to play in that game . . . it's a special, special game." . . . . Saturday's win against Arizona earned a "brick" for its Pac-12 significance, but as of Monday afternoon the appropriate artwork hadn't been done in the hallway outside the Buffs' locker room. Embree's focus now is on the "brick" that will signify the end of CU's 23-game out-of-state losing streak, which dates to 2007. "We need to get that road brick," he said. "That'll be the one I cherish the most being a part of."