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Perhaps Toledo Should Be Carrying the Blame

September 02, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

UCLA fans are asking him now. Everyone is asking him now.

If only someone had asked him then.

"The game is on the line, can you give us one more play? We need less than a yard to win, can you give us that?"

The question that will dog Skip Hicks for the remaining months of his UCLA career could have been answered in 90 seconds Saturday afternoon.

But Bob Toledo never gave him a chance.

If you must blame somebody for the Bruins' 37-34 loss to Washington State, blame the coach, not the player.

If Toledo had used one of his remaining timeouts before the Bruins' fourth-and-goal play from 18 inches with three minutes left, he could have found his exhausted running back on the sideline.

Hicks said he was too tired and confused to realize the situation, so Toledo could have grabbed him by the facemask and told him.

He could have done what we ask of any teacher.

He could have given a good student a chance to be great.

"The game is on the line, can you give us one more play? We need less than a yard to win, can you give us that?"

We don't know what Hicks would have said.

After all, he took himself out of the game two plays earlier after almost collapsing on the field.

Maybe he decides his legs won't work even for one more play, maybe he says no, maybe he could live with that.

But maybe he decides, hey, this is the first game of my final season, this is my chance to reach the next level, this is less than a yard.

Maybe he says yes.

And maybe UCLA doesn't lose the game when they hand the ball to a redshirt freshman running back--Jermaine Lewis--who had one previous carry in his entire college career.

While Hicks, who carried 27 times for 190 yards and four touchdowns in this one afternoon, was watching.

Lewis was stopped for no gain on a hurried play in which the offensive line collapsed. Washington State took possession. The Bruins never had another chance.

And Hicks never knew what didn't hit him.

"I was like, 'Oh my God,"' he said when he realized what he had just missed.

The Bruins were 18 inches from a brilliant beginning, a game that could have vaulted Hicks behind Peyton Manning in the Heisman Trophy race while further building Toledo's reputation as a big-time coach.

Instead, they are 0-1 and preparing to face Manning's third-ranked Tennessee amid a brewing controversy over Toledo's game-management skills.

Opponents are already putting the blame on Hicks.

That's predictable, but unfair. It is impossible for anyone but Hicks to determine whether he was wise or weak to beg out of the game during the final drive.

Even though he is 22, Hicks is supposedly still a college athlete, supposedly still learning his limits.

Two plays before he left the game with his team facing second down on the Cougar 10-yard line, right or wrong, it appeared he had reached those limits.

After a five-yard run around right end, Hicks remained on his back for several seconds, as if faint.

At that point, TV announcer David Norrie told TV viewers he needed to be replaced.

On the next play, during which Hicks carried for a one-yard loss, he literally jogged to the line.

"He was like a car that doesn't have any gas in the tank," Toledo said. "All you could do was push. But the gas station was too far away."

So Hicks came out and rested for two plays. Fine. Even Emmitt Smith rests during important Dallas Cowboy drives.

But Emmitt Smith always reappears at the goal line.

This is where things got weird for UCLA.

Just like they got weird in the final minutes of last year's 21-20 loss to Stanford.

That was where Toledo's team began a final drive on its 22-yard line with 51 seconds left and three timeouts . . . and ended that drive, and the game, after gaining two yards and using one timeout.

This time, the confusion was on the sideline.

Hicks left the game and was recovering when Lewis caught a 10-yard pass from Cade McNown that appeared to be a touchdown.

"I saw that and relaxed," Hicks said.

But the referees spotted the ball about 18 inches from the goal line. And moments later, while Hicks was still relaxing, his team was trying to win the game without him.

He didn't realize the situation until he saw the ball being snapped. All those people on the sideline, and nobody told him.

Should he have been more alert? Sure. Should he have been hanging on Toledo's arm in case he was needed? Certainly.

But this is why they call it college football. This is why college football teams have classrooms full of coaches.

"I didn't pay attention to down and distance," Hicks said, and then he noticed what was happening.

"And my heart starting pumping again," he said. "I wanted to be in there."

Toledo said he never thought of calling a timeout and giving his star a chance to reconsider. He thought it was more important that the struggling Washington State defense not be given a break.

"We did not want to stop the clock, we knew we had them on the ropes," Toledo said.

Somebody let them off. Skip Hicks is not paid enough to take that fall.

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