Until the fourth quarter, UCLA was on its way to winning a season opener by shutout for the first time in 25 years. And the Bruins were shutting out Tennessee, a school that hadn't gone pointless against anybody in its last 156 games.
That's when a football game that began in 5 p.m. brightness turned dark and brought out the worst in UCLA. Collapsing inexcusably against a Tennessee team shorn of its starting quarterback and top receiver, the 14th-ranked Bruins luckily outlasted the 13th-ranked Volunteers in a contest Saturday night that didn't end a minute too soon.
So many of the good things that happened through three quarters--the catching of Kevin Jordan, the running of Sharmon Shah, the resistance of UCLA's defense--were undone by a final period that included lapses in concentration by certain players and at least one play call by the coaches that might have been practical but sadly lacked backbone.
Ahead by 10 points with little more than nine minutes to play, UCLA, an offense with the best receiver in the nation, had a third and five from its 21 and ran a delayed handoff to James Milliner, who hadn't made a strong run all night. He didn't make one this time, either.
What a no-guts call this was. Rather than showing Tennessee what they were made of, the Bruins instead showed conservatism and concern, failed to land the first down and gave the Volunteers every reason to believe they could still win this game. You don't grind out the clock with nine minutes to play against a team like Tennessee. This isn't Oregon State.
Their players and loyal fans pumped up for the first time since the opening kickoff, Tennessee ran up 23 points in the fourth quarter and very easily could have won this game had UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards not intercepted a pass in the final two minutes. The Volunteers scored 50 points in last year's opener and 62 in the final game of their schedule, so don't expect them to roll over and play dead.
A lesser team would have folded one series into the game. By then, quarterback Jerry Colquitt already had become a casualty and wideout Billy Williams was being helped off the field. Colquitt was the successor to Heath Shuler. And Williams was the latest model from Tennessee's factory for receivers--Anthony Miller, Willie Gault, Alvin Harper, Tim McGee, Stanley Morgan, Carl Pickens and Sam Graddy, to name a few.
Next thing they knew, the Volunteers were spinning their wheels, going nowhere. They tried everything from Shuler's brother to Archie Manning's son to get their offense going. But UCLA, with linebackers Edwards, Rod Smalley and Shane Jasper making most of the stops, stuffed the visitors on play after play.
This game seemed in the bag. It was about to be Tennessee's worst experience on this coast since being shut out by USC in both the 1940 and 1945 Rose Bowl games.
At that point, everything the Bruins were doing seemed positive. Although their defense wasn't recording any sacks, the Volunteers sustained no long drives. UCLA's offense, meantime, was clicking, particularly Jordan, the flanker who more or less plays the John Taylor role to J.J. Stokes' Jerry Rice. Distracted by Stokes, the Volunteers got burned by Jordan.
But far too often, quarterback Wayne Cook failed to drive the offense into the end zone. Field goals are fine, but as UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said: "You hate to get those threes when you're going after sevens." Particularly against a dangerous team like Tennessee.
Poor gambles by Bruin defensive backs proved costly. And a breakdown on a two-point conversion made the score 18-16, meaning that Tennessee, pinned down a yard from its own goal by a punt, did not need to drive 99 yards for the game-winning score. All it needed to do was get in field-goal range, and UCLA could have been handed a humiliating defeat.
This was the same kind of game the Bruins blew last season against Cal and Nebraska. Football players speak constantly of maintaining their "focus"; Bruin players had better speak about this a little more.
"To give up that many points in the fourth quarter was disappointing," Donahue said, choosing too weak a word.
The good news is that for three periods, UCLA looked very much the top-15 team it purports to be. Cook was adequate and accurate, though he has looked better, and Stokes was there when they needed him until the end, when nagged by an injury. Stepping up spectacularly was Jordan, who had more than half of UCLA's receiving yardage, and Shah, who looked in midseason form.
All things considered, the Bruins played a very fine game against a very strong team. But they can play better.