By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; D01
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel brought his team to Tuesday's EagleBank Bowl with two objectives. The first was to return to the West Coast with a victory, which would dispel the perception that the Bruins would struggle when traveling from one coast to the other and watching the temperature drop in the process. The second was ensuring that his team enjoyed the experience in Washington, especially because most of his players had never been to the nation's capital before.
At halftime of UCLA's 30-21 win over Temple, Neuheisel suffered from a worrying thought. "I didn't know if I made enough of an emphasis on the first goal," he said.
That was because the Owls dominated the Bruins in the first half, entering halftime with a 21-10 lead and displaying an offense that dominated UCLA (7-6). Bill Cosby, a Temple alum, joked last week that after years of the Pacific-10 Conference hosting northern schools in the sun, UCLA must finally come play Temple (9-4) in the cold.
The Bruins devised adjustments during halftime that included determining how to take advantage of RFK Stadium's field, which had partially frozen over.
"There was a lot of skating -- literally, skating on top of it," Neuheisel said. "You had to be aware of that, and that had to be factored into the game plan."
The issue was particularly bad on one side of the field and that helped UCLA win the game in the second half. Three critical plays occurred within a 10-yard area.
The first was stopping Temple on a fourth and one on UCLA's 9-yard line while the Owls nursed a 21-10 lead. The second was a go-ahead interception on the 2-yard line while Temple was backed up near its own end zone to take a lead with 6 minutes 1 second remaining in the game.
The final play was a safety when a poor snap on a Temple punt sailed out of the end zone for the eventual final score.
With those three plays, the Bruins turned the game's momentum and sullied Temple's Cinderella season. The Owls' first bowl appearance in 30 years finished unfulfilled.
"I thought we were up for the fight, but obviously a very, very talented group we were going against -- most particularly on defense," Temple Coach Al Golden said. "We went after them, and I was proud of our kids for doing that. We made too many mistakes."
A crowd of 23,072 came to RFK Stadium for the second edition of Washington's bowl game, which was more than 5,000 fans fewer than last season's debut. However, the 2008 contest featured Navy, whereas UCLA's fans needed to travel from the West Coast to support the Bruins.
Naturally, Temple's supporters outnumbered those from UCLA during an afternoon in which the thermometer revealed the challenge of a Northeast bowl game. Although UCLA is a Bowl Championship Series-conference school with a richer tradition than the Owls, there was skepticism about the way UCLA would handle conditions uncharacteristic of California football.
"I know they were saying West Coast, Cali boys, we're going to be soft," linebacker Reggie Carter said. "I'm not going to lie -- it was cold. We fought hard. They ran the ball, we stuffed it, and we got the victory. So you could never say we're soft. We're out there hitting and competing, and we came out with the victory. We were down 21-7, and you never seen us quit."
Temple paced the first half with its rushing attack to jump to the early lead. The Owls held the ball for 21:27 in the first half. The running game allowed them to take to the air, leading to a 26-yard touchdown pass from Temple quarterback Vaughn Charlton to tight end Steve Maneri for the game's first points.
Running backs Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown followed with second-quarter scores, while UCLA's points came from a 46-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a field goal to end the half.
A second-half shoulder injury kept Pierce out of the lineup and forced Temple's uninspiring passing attack to lead the offense. Akeem Ayers's interception was one of Charlton's two second-half turnovers and undoubtedly the most costly.
The play helped Ayers win the game's most valuable player. Only a sophomore, he is part of the foundation that Neuheisel hopes can lead UCLA back into national relevance. Neuheisel expects that mission to be bolstered by the Bruins' performance in Washington, which earned the program its first bowl victory since 2005.
"The pendulum was sitting right in the middle," Neuheisel said. "We were 6-6, and this was going to determine the type of season we had to a lot of people who don't pay as close attention maybe as we do. Now, we're a winning team in 2009. And the expectations are going to take a notch forward."