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WHAT HAPPENED TO UCLA? : Bruins at a Loss for Answers : Aikman, Green Fail When It Counts Most

November 22, 1987|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Troy Aikman, the UCLA quarterback who has been leading the nation in passing efficiency, threw three interceptions in the second half of the big game against USC Saturday afternoon, matching his season total.

Two of those interceptions led directly to Trojan touchdowns. The other ended the Bruins' last-ditch effort.

Three interceptions in 10 games and then three in one half? What happened? What was the problem?

Don't ask Aikman. He doesn't know. He can't explain it. Just one of those games.

Gaston Green, the guy who had 134 yards against the Trojans as a freshman, 145 yards against the Trojans as a sophomore and a record 224 against the Trojans as a junior gained 138--with just 41 in the second half. But, the bad part was he fumbled the ball away in the third quarter, just as the momentum was shifting. Green had lost only two fumbles in all the rest of the season.

Why in the big game? Why was UCLA's usually awesome offense so awful all of a sudden?

Green doesn't know either.

After getting out to a 13-3 lead, UCLA hit a stretch in the third quarter when it seemed to choke.

OK, not choke. Not one of the Bruins will admit to choke.

Tighten up? No, they say they didn't tighten up, either.

Panic? No, all agree there was no fear on the sideline. Slide then? Fail to respond when the game started slipping away?

No, they say they were playing their little hearts out.

So why in the world did they play what they all admit was by far the worst half of football they have played all season just when the city title, the Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl game were all on the line?

UCLA Coach Terry Donahue offered up: "Sometimes you can want things so bad that you don't play as well as you know you can. . . . We've been a team that has been real good about not turning over the ball. We led the nation in turnover margin. And then in one half we turned the ball over four times.

"Big games come down to turnovers and kicking, and the turnovers did us in today. We had a rash of turnovers in the second half. . . .

"You get to the point where you're trying so hard that you're fighting yourself a little bit. . . . We kind of self-destructed."

That much they all knew.

After the only other game the Bruins lost this season, a 42-33 loss at Nebraska, the Bruin coaches and players were bitterly frustrated that they had lost because they felt that, but for their own mistakes, they could have won that game. After losing to the Trojans, it was much the same.

Only worse. This time they knew that they were good enough to beat USC. They just didn't do it. So they were left to recite the old cliche about not being good enough on the day of the game.

Linebacker Ken Norton Jr., who shuttled in and out as he battled a numb left arm caused by a pinched nerve, put it this way: "It wasn't a question of not being ready. We were ready to play. We felt good, really good, in the first half. We had that good goal-line stand in the first half, and we got some breaks.

"We were up and they were up. . . .

"And then it got away from us. Some days you have it, and some days you don't."

The one who really didn't have it was Aikman. Despite completing 11 of 26 passes for 171 yards, he had a bad day. For him. He just wasn't "on" when he needed to be "on."

So the defense was on the field much more than was healthy.

Safety James Washington said that the defense started to get worn down. But he gave credit to quarterback Rodney Peete for running them all over the field.

Defensive tackle Jim Wahler, who played despite painful torn ligaments in his foot, insisted that the Bruins were not flat. As for how the Bruin defense, which ranks 11th in total defense giving up an average of 262 yards, managed to give up 404 yards to the Trojans, Wahler could only say, "They turned our strength into a weakness. We're so quick, we were overpursuing and they were cutting back. . . . Then Rodney Peete got hot."

Cornerback Marcus Turner finally stated the obvious, saying, "We were out there for a long time."

The fact is, if Aikman had had just an average game, the Bruins would have been on the field more than seven offensive plays in the third period and the momentum might not have swung so wildly.

But who is going to criticize the quarterback who brought them so far?

Donahue said: "I didn't think we gave Troy a lot of time. SC had a good pass rush. . . .

"Troy Aikman has bailed us out all year long, time and time again. He has had a brilliant junior season. Today was not a good game for Troy, but it also wasn't the best game for his coaches or some of his teammates, either.

"I don't think we'd be in position to be in the run for the Rose Bowl if not for having Troy on our team. . . .

"He shouldn't bear the brunt of what went wrong."

Aikman chalked it up to "just a bad day" and said that he wouldn't know the particulars of his mistakes until he saw the film--and he was in no hurry to get to the film.

He'll have to look at it sooner or later, though, as the Bruins prepare to play Florida in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day.

Saturday was no time to talk about the Aloha Bowl, though.

Asked if the Bruins would be able to get up for that game, Norton said, "Ask me again in a couple of weeks."

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