PULLMAN, Wash. — With 25 seconds to play in the third quarter Saturday, J.J. Stokes turned to Rob Walker and signaled thumbs up.
It was not an appraisal of Walker's play to that point, which had been erratic, nor of UCLA's situation. The Bruins seemed in the process of frittering away a lead.
Thumbs up meant Stokes believed he could get open deep. Walker went to him for a 43-yard touchdown pass play to help UCLA take control of a game that defied control and give the Bruins their seventh victory in a row, 40-27, over Washington State at Martin Stadium.
Walker was the quarterback because starter Wayne Cook was hospitalized for treatment of a bruised kidney, suffered on a hit by Signor Mobley 2 minutes 29 seconds into the game. Walker came in and went to Bryan Adams on a third-down pass for a first down. Cook returned, only to take another hit, by T.J Folkers, that drew a roughing-the-passer penalty.
A third hit, by DeWayne Patterson, put Cook out for good. Walker came in and passed to Stokes, who shed Torey Hunter's tackle for a 29-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
It quickly got more difficult.
"We haven't given poor Rob Walker very many, if any, reps (in practice)," said UCLA Coach Terry Donahue, who added that Cook is expected to be recovered and ready for this week's game against Arizona State. "We have been just giving everything to Wayne. When you have to switch so abruptly like that, it's disconcerting to the poor athlete who has to do it and to your whole football team."
It seemed hardly disconcerting at all at first. Walker's passes to Stokes for eight and 15 yards on a drive to Bjorn Merten's field goal of 38 yards for a 17-0 lead seemed to indicate that only the personnel had changed in UCLA's offense. When that lead grew to 24-0 when Tommy Bennett returned a fumble 18 yards for a touchdown, many of the 34,987 on hand started a trek down the hill toward Dad's Day celebrations.
A 24-3 lead at halftime seemed safe enough. Then came the third quarter.
"Rob had his moments," Donahue said. "When he first started playing, he looked very good. But then Washington State (5-5 overall, 3-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference) switched the defense on us. He didn't have any experience throwing the plays that would work against the new defense. He wasn't confident with them.
"We had seen the second defense, but Rob had not seen a lot of it."
Walker, who had spent last week yelling at Arizona players from the Rose Bowl sideline, so much so that he drew a 15-yard bench penalty--"And I got chewed all the way from chancellor to head coach," he said--was the target of the Cougar defenders, who announced an intention to deal with him personally.
The new defense took away the short passes Walker had completed in the first half, and it was effective enough to limit him to three-of-15 passing in the third quarter.
"We got confused on a pass route and the receivers ran one route and I thought they were running another," Walker said. "It was one of those things of miscommunication, and then it snowballed into the next series. It was really a roller-coaster ride in the second half."
The dips were provided by Cougar defensive end Patterson, who stripped Walker of the ball on the Bruin 29 on UCLA's first play of the second half. Eight plays later, Delton Johnson rolled into the end zone from two yards out to cut the Bruins' lead to 24-10.
Inspired, Patterson got off the ground to swat the ball away from Walker again and recovered it to set up Aaron Price's 30-yard field goal to make the score 24-13.
The Bruins (7-2, 5-1) became cautious, keeping things on the ground until Stokes put his thumb in the air.
Thumbs up, because Washington State's defense had no reason to be cautious.
"They were overplaying my out patterns," said Stokes, "and I signaled him I could go out and up and get open."
Safety John Rushing slipped on the play, and Stokes suddenly was as open as the Pullman skyline. It was his 16th touchdown reception of the season, one short of the Pac-10 record set by Washington's Mario Bailey in 1991.
"That touchdown pretty much cost us the game," Patterson said.
He tried to take it back himself. Gary Walton had sacked Derek Chapman, the Cougars' third quarterback, and caused a fumble at the Washington State six. Walker dropped back and threw toward fullback Daron Washington. Patterson anticipated the pass, leaped between Walker and Washington and batted the ball up, catching it with only 89 yards between himself, the goal line and cutting the UCLA lead to 31-21.
"It seemed like it took forever," Patterson said of his run. "It seemed like it was 160 yards."
It was another example of UCLA hurting itself.
"Washington State . . . wouldn't die and we kept bringing them back to life by doing things that ordinarily we hadn't done," Donahue said.
The Bruins had protected the ball well until last week. They fumbled twice against Arizona, then had the two fumbles and an interception on Saturday.
Donahue met with the defense on the sideline, challenging the players. "He said the game would fall in our laps," cornerback Carl Greenwood said. "It did."
A UCLA safety, caused when Chapman slipped in the end zone under pressure from Jamir Miller and Matt Werner, made the score 33-21 and seemed to restore order. Daron Washington's seven-yard touchdown run offered insurance and satisfaction. "I hadn't been in the end zone since the San Diego State game," Washington said.
For the Bruins, it was the first of three victories they need to take themselves to the Rose Bowl. "Now we get to stay home and play Round 2 and Round 3 of the elimination tournament," Donahue said.
Round 2 brings Arizona State on Saturday.
For Washington State, only a game against Washington remains. There will be no bowl for the Cougars. "I'd trade all that stuff I did (Saturday) in for a victory," Patterson said. "I know that it's going to be hard because we have to sit at home for Christmas."