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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 7

Droughns Fumbles a Happy Homecoming

Oregon: Junior running back from Anaheim loses ball three times in Ducks' overtime loss to UCLA.

October 18, 1998|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nervousness began for Reuben Droughns a week ago. That's when the Oregon running back started thinking about coming home to Southern California to play UCLA.

The loneliness began a lot earlier. It has been a year and a half since Droughns, a junior who played his prep ball at Anaheim High, has been home, a year and a half since he has seen his family.

"I couldn't come down here," Droughns said, "and they couldn't afford to go up there."

It wasn't exactly the homecoming Droughns had dreamed of. "Nightmare" might be a better word.

When Droughns finally emerged from the Rose Bowl late Saturday to be reunited with his family, he met them on crutches, the result of a sprained ankle he suffered in the second quarter of Saturday's game and then re-injured in the fourth quarter.

He met them as a member of the losing side in UCLA's 41-38 overtime victory.

And worst of all, he met them after the most disappointing performance of his career by his own account.

Droughns left home as Orange County's No. 2 all-time rushing leader with 4,915 yards along with 49 touchdowns.

He came back as the nation's rushing leader among junior college players last season while at Merced College and as Oregon's leading rusher with an average of 163 yards a game.

"I was very nervous," Droughns said of his homecoming. "I haven't been playing in front of anybody I knew in a year and a half."

Droughns tacked an additional 172 yards onto his season total Saturday along with a touchdown. But the only column he could focus on was the one marked "fumbles." Droughns fumbled the ball four times, losing three.

"It was the most frustrating game I ever had," he said. "They did a good job stripping the ball and I just couldn't hold onto it. It was tough. It hurts real bad. The offense was doing a great job if only I wasn't fumbling."

After one fumble, Droughns ran by his teammates and showed them his hands.

"I tried to tell them I would not do it again," he said, "but it didn't quite work out that way."

The crushing fumble was the last. Sidelined after hurting his ankle for the second time, Droughns asked back into the game in the fourth quarter.

Then, with the score tied and the Ducks driving into Bruin territory with less than three minutes to play, Droughns coughed up the ball once again. On the very next play, UCLA's Cade McNown and Danny Farmer connected on a 60-yard touchdown pass.

On the plus side, Droughns averaged 6.9 yards per carry and scored from eight yards out in the third quarter to cut the Ducks' deficit to 24-21.

"It was a kind of a roller-coaster day," said Droughns, looking down at his badly swollen ankle. "I've just got to keep my head up next week, if I can even play."

He'll play if he can, said Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti.

"He's a great player," Bellotti said. "I would still give him the ball 30 times."

But Oregon quarterback Akili Smith was a little harsher about the fumbles.

"You can't do that," Smith said. "You've got to hold onto the ball. I've been telling him that since the first game. He's a great back, but he cost us today."

No matter.

Droughns was embraced by his family as he walked out the gate. He was home and that was the most important thing.

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