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UCLA Ranks No. 1 in Entertainment Value

October 18, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Let's see, the winning team's quarterback threw two interceptions, threw up at midfield, threw up passes that almost drew rain.

The winning team's receiver dropped a 59-yard touchdown pass that would have secured his team a 31-14 third-quarter lead.

The winning team's kicker had one field-goal attempt blocked and shanked another that would have won the game in regulation.

The winning team's coach declined to call time out before the last-second kick in regulation. He had three remaining.

The winning team's defense made big plays, but only when it absolutely had to.

In the aftermath of UCLA's 41-38 overtime victory against Oregon at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, a network television audience may have wondered whether the Bruins are ready to compete for the national title.

The answer, of course, is "in a heartbeat." So long as you don't mind a pulse rate of 160 beats per minute.

How good is UCLA? Who the heck knows?

Could they beat Ohio State if the teams played today?

Probably not.

Could they beat Oregon again?

The ABC audience might have been aghast at UCLA's harem-scarem performance, but the Pacific 10 has games like that almost weekly. The conference just chooses to televise most of them on cable late at night in the East.

Before Saturday, the four most entertaining college football games this season have been Pac-10 night games: Arizona State-Washington, Arizona-Washington, Arizona State-USC and UCLA-Arizona.

Saturday's game, warts and all, tops the list. Thankfully, it was presented in broad daylight.

For all the screw-ups, mixups and lost lunches, this UCLA team has the look of a contender. It looks much like Arizona State in 1996, that seat-of-your-pants squad led by Jake Plummer who, you might remember, shocked Nebraska, 19-0, in a night game that did not make Sunday morning papers in Chicago.

If you don't think it takes luck to keep hope alive in a title hunt, you haven't been paying attention.

Last year, Nebraska won a share of the title because Shevin Wiggins kicked a Scott Frost pass to Matt Davison for a touchdown against Missouri on the last play in regulation. Nebraska won in overtime.

In 1996, Plummer pulled out one thriller after another, including a double-overtime win against USC in Tempe, Ariz., and a come-from-behind victory against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

That Plummer-led squad came within a minute of winning the national title.

"Yeah, we do look like that Arizona State team," UCLA linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "They pulled it out no matter what. We have that same spark of a champion, like ASU in '96."

Two years later, UCLA quarterback Cade McNown is Jake Plummer.

Saturday, McNown seemed to cinch the Heisman Trophy one minute and throw it away the next. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 395 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

Yet, he found a way to win.

It's hard to say how McNown's performance will play with Heisman voters, but where would the Bruins be without him?

"He's got a lot of heart," receiver Danny Farmer said. "Why wouldn't you want him on your team?"

McNown, reprising Joe Montana's famous "Chicken Soup" comeback from illness to lead Notre Dame to a Cotton Bowl win, ran 25 yards on a key third-and-five play in the third quarter and then vomited at the line of scrimmage, the Rose Bowl crowd groaning with each expulsion.

McNown said afterward it was no big deal.

"I was just waiting for a long run so I could throw up and feel better," McNown said. "I just needed to get it out of my system."

Farmer said, however, that McNown was quite ill before the game.

"He was sick," Farmer said. "But sick or no sick, we knew he was going to play today. He's our guy. He took one play off, came back in and led us to victory. He's amazing."

There's no telling how UCLA's performance will play elsewhere. Folks in the Big Ten, quite content with 6-3 field-goal finishes, might find this sort of squirrel derby display an affront to the game.

UCLA, a national contender?

Hey, there's no telling how this will play out. You only get so many last-second bullets per season. The Bruins just fired one from the chamber. UCLA has a tough stretch ahead, with road games at California, Washington and Miami. The annual game against USC on Nov. 21 also awaits.

But, lucky or good--or both--there is definitely something magical about this team.

And to say the Fiesta Bowl is salivating over the prospects of UCLA playing Ohio State in the Jan. 4 national title game is only a slight understatement.

Three Fiesta Bowl representatives were on hand Saturday to witness the Bruins' high-wire act.

John Junker, the Fiesta Bowl's executive director, has no control over which schools will play in his game. The top two picks will be determined Dec. 6 when the bowl championship series releases its final computer poll.

But it's safe to say he was impressed by UCLA.

The Fiesta Bowl, above all, is an entertainment event, to be shown in prime time on ABC.

"It's early," Junker said when asked of his assessment of the Bruins. "But this day was so special for college football. They are clearly one of the most entertaining teams in the country."

Maybe not the best, maybe not the strongest, maybe not the smartest.

But in the pursuit of wholesome family entertainment, does it really matter?

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