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Beguiling Bruins Take Good With the Bad

November 08, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The road to the national title took an ugly turn on ugly AstroTurf for 8-0 UCLA, which skidded out of rain-slick Parker Stadium on Saturday night with another roll-out-the-barrels victory that needed to be explained with context and computer printouts.

No one said going unbeaten was going to be easy, but should winning be this cruel?

UCLA pulled another fast one on the nation, ripping off a 41-34, last-minute victory against Oregon State.

Never mind that the Beavers have not had a winning season since 1970. Their fans know a flimflam team when they see one.

"How far you going to drop in the polls this week, No. 7?" one fan screamed as the Bruins bolted up the exit ramp.


"You were 30 seconds from going to the Holiday Bowl!" yelled another.


Is it going to be like this all the way to the Fiesta Bowl?

What does it say when players from a school that hasn't won more games than it has lost since the Nixon administration almost feel sorry for you?

"I don't like UCLA, don't get me wrong," Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton said. "But it's going to suck that they're going to drop in the polls just because we played them good."

Jonathan Smith, the losing quarterback, handled the question diplomatically, careful not to kick an opposing team when it was up.

Was UCLA the best team you played this year?

"Oh, yeah," Smith said. "Uh, I think so . . . yeah."

Taunts and disclaimers aside, it was an otherwise grand day for UCLA.

No, really.

With No. 1 Ohio State's defeat to Michigan State, the bowl championship series' two brass rings are again up for grabs.

After falling from first to third in the BCS rankings after last week's harrowing victory over Stanford, UCLA is back in the chase thanks to the Buckeyes, who usually don't choke away their national-title hopes until much later in November.

Amazingly, the Bruins' near-Fiesta Bowl death experience against Oregon State should propel them back into the all-important No. 2 BCS position.

Tennessee, a big winner Saturday, no doubt will take the lead in Monday's BCS rankings.

UCLA had a 1.43 point lead over No. 4 Kansas State going into Saturday.

With Ohio State's loss, Kansas State and UCLA likely will move up one spot each in the polls, UCLA from No. 3 to No. 2 in the AP and from No. 4 to No. 3 in the USA TODAY/ESPN coaches' poll; Kansas State from No. 4 to No. 3 in the AP and from No. 2 to No. 1 in the coaches' poll.

As bad as UCLA might have played, it would seem doubtful either poll would drop the Bruins behind No. 5 Florida or No. 6 Florida State, schools with one loss.

It also would seem difficult for the New York Times and Sagarin polls to drop UCLA any lower after knocking the Bruins from first to fourth last week.

UCLA would seem to have enough of a point cushion to hold off Kansas State for the No. 2 spot in this week's BCS rankings.

This is crucial, of course, because only the top two schools will meet for the national title in the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl.

UCLA entered the week with a commanding advantage over Kansas State in the BCS strength-of-schedule component-No. 3 for the Bruins versus No. 68 for the Wildcats.

Saturday's events also revealed an amazing possibility and potentially critical flaw in the BCS system.

If Kansas State, as expected, ends up No. 1 in today's coaches' poll and No. 3 in the BCS rankings, there is going to be egg on the coaches' faces.


Because the coaches already have stipulated that the winner of the Fiesta Bowl will be declared the USA TODAY/ESPN coaches' national champion.

Won't that be interesting with Kansas State No. 1 in the coaches' poll but unable to play for the national title.

The AP poll will declare its national champion after the Fiesta Bowl.

With upcoming games against three schools with winning records--Washington, USC and Miami--UCLA still would seem to control its national-title destiny, no matter how lucky the Bruins might seem.

Or is it luck?

Oregon State, which fell to 4-6, has lost three consecutive heartbreakers, one-point defeats each to Washington and California and Saturday night's sob story.

UCLA, in the last month, came from behind to beat Arizona, defeated Oregon in overtime, won on a miracle fumble against Stanford and survived Oregon State in the last minute.

"You almost want to say it's unfair for us to play so tough three weeks in a row and not come away with any wins," said Smith, the former Glendora High School star who completed 23 of 47 passes for 323 yards.

So how come UCLA wins these games and Oregon State doesn't?

Is UCLA just more lucky?

"You'd like to say they're more lucky," Smith said. "But I think good teams create their own good luck. I mean Cade [McNown] is fabulous. He makes plays when they need them."

Unfortunately for the Bruins, they've need them almost every weekend since Labor Day.

UCLA, lucky or good?

"I think it's a credit to them," Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said. "I think it's hard to be undefeated. Everyone likes to beat the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 team in the nation. They've got to be a little tight. They've had some tough times. But the credit should go to them because they respond."

Were Oregon State fans ready to cut UCLA some slack? Understand that winning a national title isn't a walk in Parker Stadium.

Can Beaver fans not feel the pain of UCLA's 18-game winning streak?

What, are you kidding?

"Over-rated," they chanted as the victors headed off into the night.

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