He was lost.
Months of planning and preparation and two weeks of intense competition for the starting quarterback job were finished. It was Labor Day. Rob Walker had been declared third-string, behind starter Wayne Cook and backup Ryan Fien, and all the words of commiseration and challenges to be ready because a chance could come at any time rang hollow.
The season was about to begin, but Walker was left to practice punting, because he was told he would be a backup there, too, and wander around Spaulding Field, seeming to kibitz as Cook and Fien worked with the offense in a practice regimen that left little time for third-stringers.
Ten weeks later, the challenge is here. Walker will start for the 10th-ranked Bruins against Arizona State today at 3:30 p.m. at the Rose Bowl because Cook suffered a bruised kidney a week ago and Fien long ago disappeared from the equation because of a recurring foot injury.
A week has been spent in anticipation. As Walker sat watching film of last week's mistakes against Washington State--two fumbles and an interception in a 40-27 victory in which he also threw two touchdown passes--Walker squeezed a football, telling himself the errors would not be repeated against Arizona State.
Advice came from Pat Walker, a high school coach in Texas, father to son. Hold the ball. Be aware of defensive players on your blind side. \o7 Hold the ball\f7 .
"I've learned from my mistakes," Walker said. "I've got to remind myself that the football is like a kid, and I want to protect it like it's my life."
He was excited more than scared when told he would be playing. Fear comes as the kickoff looms. It's natural.
"You never want to go into a game thinking about mistakes," he said. "You never want to give a defense a look like you're thinking that."
Walker will lead the Bruins, 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference, against a fast-improving team. The Sun Devils (5-4, 3-3) have won three games in a row, with an offense that has averaged 36.8 points over the last four.
Quarterback Jake Plummer has completed 52 of 102 passes for 853 yards and six touchdowns in those four games. He was 16 of 27 for 265 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 41-0 victory over California.
"In the first 10-15 plays (against Cal), he had three errors, and we really sputtered as a team," Sun Devil Coach Bruce Snyder said. "From halfway through the second quarter on, he played really well and looked like a veteran Pac-10 player. He's got a strong arm, quick feet and a real strong dose of courage."
Walker will see a Sun Devil defense that includes end Shante Carver, who has 40 sacks in 42 games. Carver will be the player looming on Walker's blind side, ready to make him repeat the errors of a week ago.
But this week, Walker has had all the preparation of a starter, and, he said, it makes a world of difference. "I talked to (offensive coordinator Homer) Smith last week, and he said guys in the NFL, they have a hard time bringing a guy in as the backup because of the shorter reps in practice and the different looks the defense can throw, that the first-team quarterback has more time to practice against," he said. "I've learned this week that things do come back to you, and confidence does get back to the level it should be."
His reference to history comes from a season ago, when Walker started five games after Cook was sidelined for the season because of a knee injury.
Walker led the Bruins to victories over Brigham Young and San Diego State, before losses to Stanford and Arizona started a downward slide. He returned to help in a victory over Oregon.
Donahue has his own historical reference, coming from as far back as 1966, when he was a player in Westwood.
He takes heart from such history.
"Traditionally, we've had great success with backup quarterbacks going in and doing a great job," Donahue said. "You don't have to look very far: John Barnes, last year. Matt Stevens came in for the Rose Bowl against Iowa and did a great job. When I played here, Gary Beban went down with an ankle injury the week before the SC game, and Norm Dow picked up."
Barnes, the last in a line of four quarterbacks last season, was the hero of a 38-37 victory over USC. Starting in the 1986 Rose Bowl after David Norrie was injured, Stevens led a 45-28 victory over Iowa. Dow had a 26-yard run in a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive to beat USC, 14-7, in 1966.
"No coach is excited to lose his quarterback at this time of year," Donahue said, "but I'm not going to go, 'It's the end of the world,' because it's not. I'm not going to say it doesn't have any impact on us, because you don't want to lose the guy who's been directing your offense at a time like this, in a crucial two-week tournament. But we have, and we have to respond, rally, to get it done without Wayne."
UCLA remains the only Pac-10 team that needs no help from anyone else to gain a Rose Bowl berth, but a victory over Arizona State is necessary to retain that status. Tied with Arizona and USC at 5-1 at the top of the conference, UCLA has beaten Arizona and will end its season against USC at the Coliseum next week.
"I think many people would give up their job to have an opportunity to lead UCLA to a Rose Bowl game, and I'm in that situation," Walker said. "I'm probably going to be called on to lead the team to victory."
No longer lost, today he has a chance to answer that call.