The Poetic Justice of Rick Neuheisel's Son Saving UCLA's Season

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The Poetic Justice of Rick Neuheisel's Son Saving UCLA's Season
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It’s natural to suspect that the relationship between UCLA coach Jim Mora and Bruins backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel was not warm and fuzzy from the start.

Mora is the man who was hired in 2012 to replace Neuheisel’s father Rick as the Bruins coach.

And every time the new Bruins coach blew his whistle or drew up a play, there was no escaping the fact Jerry was missing out on what could have been an incredible series of father-son moments. 

But if there was any strain or tension between them, it no doubt vaporized Saturday night when Neuheisel led the No. 12 Bruins to an improbable 20-17 comeback victory against Texas.

"It was really hard," Jerry Neuheisel told the Daily Bruin's Chris Kalra last April. "You get angry all the time and you hate how things change. It’s hard ’cause it’s your family, and you wish it happened to you, but it happened to him."

But the saving grace, Neuheisel said, was that Mora "said he’d always have my back and he’d always give me a chance. As a quarterback, that’s all you can ask for."

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Brett Hundley had to watch most of the game from the sidelines.

Mora proved he was a man of his word Saturday, but he really had no choice. Starting quarterback Brett Hundley, a Heisman Trophy hopeful who is already under the NFL microscope, was lost for the night after suffering a first-quarter injury to his left, non-throwing elbow. UCLA needed a new man under center, and Neuheisel was next up on the depth chart.

So here they were, two guys who could have had an adversarial relationship, suddenly needing each other in the worst way.

When Neuheisel admitted to his coach he was nervous, Mora said he responded with a firm vote of confidence.

"And Jerry told me, he said, I was nervous," Mora explained at his press conference. "And I said, you know what? I wasn't. Because I've watched you every day. And I've watched you prepare. And I know how smart you are. And I know your lineage. And I know how your dad taught you. And I think it all paid off for him tonight."

Neuheisel told Fox Sports in his postgame interview that the Bruins coaches "just kept me calm."

Calm enough to throw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payton with 3:00 left to rally the 3-0 Bruins, who had fallen behind 17-13 with 5:13 remaining.

And for once, the "Jerry’s World" nickname of AT&T Stadium belonged to someone other than Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Mora said that both he and his backup quarterback are coaches’ sons. Mora’s father, Jim Mora Sr., had notable runs as a head coach with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, even though he now is perhaps best known for the beer commercial in which he shouts “Playoffs?” in a squeaky voice.

Mora discussed that common ground in his postgame interview with reporters, saying:

He's a coach's kid. He grew up in this game. You know? We're the same, man. We're the same people. You know? And that's what we talked about the first week I took this job, when -- you know, this was going to be a hard transition for a guy like Jerry. His dad, who's a legend here, had been released. You know? And that's the game of football. That's the sport that we're in. It's tough. It happens. But Jerry has never, ever, ever, ever, ever let that get in the way of being an amazing young man, an amazing teammate, team member. And I just have confidence in him.

For the redshirt sophomore, it was a fitting coming-out party that in some ways echoed his father’s story as a UCLA quarterback.

Rick Neuheisel didn’t take a single practice rep his first two years after coming to Westwood as a walk-on. When he did finally get in games, it was as a holder on kicks, the same minimal role Jerry had largely been limited to until Saturday.

"(My dad) says it sucks," Jerry said in his Daily Bruin interview. "Quarterback’s one of those positions where only one guy gets to play, and it’s hard. You know with one guy getting to play, you sit a lot and you see plays where you’re like, 'Oh I could make that.' And that’s just the competitor in you."

The competitor in Jerry showed up quite nicely against Texas and kept the undefeated Bruins in the hunt for a playoff spot. He finished the night 23-of-30 for 178 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are all career highs for Neuheisel, who last season was limited to 11-of-13 coming off the bench.

Patience no doubt is in his DNA.

His father bided his time at UCLA and eventually was the winning quarterback and MVP of the 1984 Rose Bowl. But he took a bumpy road to that accomplishment. During the 1983 season, he was benched at one point in favor of Steve Bono but managed to regain his starting role.

Jerry also likely will be headed back to the bench soon, unless Hundley’s injury is a serious one.

But for one night, it was all on Neuheisel, and Mora said the potential for a fairy-tale ending crossed his mind when he sent in his backup quarterback.

"My first thought was excitement for Jerry Neuheisel," Mora said at his press conference. "I mean, this kid is everything that's right about college football and about UCLA. I mean, he bleeds Bruin blue. And I just thought, wow, you couldn't write a better script than this right here. You know?"

We do now.

Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.

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