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Cavalry's Ranks Are Full Here

October 18, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

Chris Sailer and Brian Poli-Dixon can wake up free of guilt this morning. They can walk around, feel the breeze, bask in the sunshine.

The UCLA Bruins remain undefeated, ranked No. 2 in the country, on track for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

There were times when you could see the national championship slipping through their hands--specifically, Poli-Dixon's hands--during UCLA's roller-coaster 41-38 victory over Oregon at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

Not to fear. Someone kept coming up with big plays, giving the Bruins chance after chance until they got it right and Sailer made a 24-yard field goal in overtime to end the game.

Had they lost, it wouldn't have meant that Poli-Dixon cost the team a championship with his dropped passes, or that Sailer blew it by sending an almost certain field-goal kick wide left at the end of regulation.

Because if teams can't find a way to overcome those moments of adversity, then they aren't true championship material in the first place. It's that depth of resourcefulness, that inexhaustible supply of mettle that makes a team No. 1. And that's what the Bruins displayed Saturday.

"You make your own chances," offensive tackle Brian Polak said. "I don't believe in luck."

Thanks to Pete Holland and Cade McNown and Danny Farmer and Brendon Ayanbadejo, Poli-Dixon and Sailer and even Jason Bell don't have to spend the rest of the season saying, "If only . . ."

Instead, the first thing out of Poli-Dixon's mouth afterward wasn't a word but more of a sound.

"Whoooo," he said, his eyes growing wide and rolling upward in the universal expression of relief.

On the first possession of the third quarter, with UCLA leading, 24-14, a wide-open Poli-Dixon dropped what should have been a 59-yard touchdown pass from McNown.

It loomed larger and larger as Oregon seized momentum in the third quarter by scoring 10 points. The Ducks took a 31-24 lead early in the fourth.

Poli-Dixon appeared to redeem himself with a 42-yard reception that set up a two-yard touchdown run by Jermaine Lewis to tie the score, 31-31.

But then Poli-Dixon dropped another sure reception, on a third-down play when the Bruins needed to sustain a drive. Poli-Dixon appeared to catch the ball on a curl route and spin for a first down. When he turned around, it became apparent he didn't have the ball with him. Time to punt. Time to ask questions about Poli-Dixon's hands.

"I don't know what happened on the bomb," Poli-Dixon said. "Maybe I let up a little bit, like, 'Oh, I got this.' I didn't make sure I looked it in.

"On the little curl, I just started running without the ball."

The Ducks took the ball back to UCLA's 39 before Bruin linebacker Holland knocked the ball loose from Oregon running back Reuben Droughns. On the next play, McNown threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Farmer that gave UCLA the lead.

Oregon seemed to have have an answer for everything the Bruins did. Even after Ayanbadejo and Tod McBride sacked Oregon quarterback Akili Smith to set up fourth and 16, Smith threw a pass that Damon Griffin managed to catch for a 16-yard gain, even though Bell tipped the ball.

Two plays later, Oregon scored.

Then UCLA answered with a 53-yard pass from McNown to Drew Bennett to the four-yard line with seven seconds remaining. All Sailer had to do was make a chip shot. An extra point. He missed.

"It was just a fluke," Sailer said. "It wasn't like I was nervous or anything. It's just one of those things."

Except this wasn't just one of those games. In the no-playoff world of college football, the national championship is on the line every game UCLA plays. "I didn't want to let this team down," Sailer said. "We have a chance to do something special with this team. With this team, we've got a chance to go out and get a Pac-10 title and a national championship."

As Poli-Dixon said: "You always have that in the back of your mind. What if? What if?"

It was interesting to watch the UCLA sideline in the final minutes of regulation. As Oregon made its last drive, Polak and then left guard James Ghezzi came over to Poli-Dixon and patted him on the back, a little bit of the team unity coming out.

It even comes from beyond the bench. Sailer made the lonely walk back to the kicker's practice net after his miss. The rest of the team huddled at the sideline. Frank Foellmer, one of the alumni yell leaders, came over and asked Sailer, "What happened?"

But Foellmer reassured him: "You'll make it this time, Chris."

More shouts of encouragement came from the stands.

Then the defense, led by two more Ayanbadejo sacks in overtime, gave him his chance by shutting out Oregon.

"You could sense it," cornerback Ryan Roques said. "The defense was going to go on the field and we were going to end it right there."

On offense, the Bruins did nothing but run the ball, making it clear they would leave it up to Sailer.

"I wasn't going to miss again," he said.

In the back of the interview room, the most welcome sight in college football came in: three representatives of the Fiesta Bowl, clad in yellow jackets.

They have a reason to keep following UCLA now.

Because in a locker room that featured Freddie Mitchell and DeShaun Foster on crutches and plenty of mistake-prone players, there were enough other players who made a difference. Enough players to cover mistakes that even Sailer got a chance to cover for himself.

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