UCLA made another quarterback look like a Heisman winner Saturday, but, of course, for the prodigious Peyton Manning, that's practically a step down.
For Manning, the Tennessee senior who spurned millions of dollars and Bill Parcells (probably not in that order of preference) last spring to lead one last voluntary run at a national title, the 341 yards, two touchdowns and a 30-24 victory at the Rose Bowl was worth a shrug and a knowing grimace.
"Did I play a good game?" Manning said, repeating the postgame question. "Does it really matter? You guys are going to judge that, anyway. I thought I played well enough to win--with a lot of defensive help."
With the always epic showdown against Florida coming up next on Sept. 20, Manning rolled up 241 yards and both of his touchdown passes in the first half.
But, against a Bruin defense that surrendered 371 passing yards to Washington State's Ryan Leaf last Saturday, Manning sputtered with the rest of the Volunteer offense, amassing only 100 passing yards and completing only seven of his 21 attempts in the second half as UCLA rallied back.
And for No. 3 Tennessee, struggling against the Bruins is not exactly the surest way to steel themselves for the Gators.
"We didn't play good enough today to beat a high school team," said All-American linebacker Leonard Little, when asked if Tennessee had played well enough Saturday to expect to beat Florida. "In the first half we played good, but in the second half we let up, we kind of rolled over."
Said Tennessee receiver Peerless Price: "It was long, it was hot--it just seemed like we were playing for days."
Manning blamed himself for opening the door late in the first half, when, with Tennessee cruising, 24-0, and inside the UCLA 20, he through a pass that was intercepted by UCLA safety Larry Atkins.
Instead of doing as ordered and spiking the ball to stop the clock, Manning saw that UCLA was confused on defense and looped a pass up to receiver Marcus Nash--only to watch Atkins streak across the field, cut in front of Nash, then race deep into Volunteer territory to set up the Bruins' first score.
"That was a little bit greedy on my part," Manning said. "I saw that nobody was covering Nash, so I tried to get it to him."
Volunteer Coach Phillip Fulmer, chief beneficiary of Manning's surprising decision to bypass a chance to be the No. 1 pick overall in the NFL draft, said the interception was understandable.
"That was just a great quarterback trying to make a great play right there," Fulmer said. "He's made enough of them that you can't really fault him for trying."
For Fulmer, the real problem Saturday was Tennessee's big mistakes: five fumbles (two lost) and a woeful kicking game, which included a safety on a blown punt snap and several shanks by punter Dave Leaverton.
How about Manning's performance? Fulmer shook his head and, appropriately so, sounded very much like an NFL coach speaking about a Pro Bowl quarterback.
"I don't really know, I'll have to see what happened," Fulmer said. "Hey, he could've had 500 yards for all I know."
Manning could have gotten 500 or more if he kept up his first-half pace--but as UCLA wound its way back into the game, Manning uncharacteristically started bouncing balls off the Rose Bowl turf.
"I don't really get scared," Manning said. "It was more frustrating that we weren't performing better offensively.
"Our defense is one of our strong points. But we've been putting too much pressure on them. Against the teams we're going to be playing real soon, our offense has to score more points."
To be fair, Manning was getting much more pass-rush pressure in the second half, Nash came out of the game because of leg problems in the second half, and Price was limping because of an injured leg for most of the game.
Manning (who ended up 28 for 49 and completed two or more passes to six receivers) did connect with Jermaine Copeland with a crucial 27-yard pass up the left seam on third and 13 to key Tennessee's important fourth-quarter field-goal drive.
"I think the team of the first half, that's our team," Manning said.