PULLMAN, Wash. — UCLA still had a chance.
The Bruins could have beaten Washington State and still owned so many chances. Chances to be in a BCS game. Chances to play in the Rose Bowl for a national championship. Chances to win the Pacific 10 Conference. Chances to still have a very special football season.
In their own hands, the Bruins held their fate. It's what every team wants, the chance to control what happens to a season, the opportunity to decide its own destiny.
When Washington beat Stanford on Saturday afternoon and Michigan lost to Michigan State, with its own game against Oregon still ahead and a rematch likely between Nebraska and Oklahoma, with Washington scheduled against Miami, with every weekend the likelihood of two undefeated teams left in the country getting slimmer, UCLA still had a grasp on greatness.
Not any more.
Washington State beat UCLA, 20-14, at Martin Stadium. The seven UCLA turnovers were ugly. The grasp on greatness, the fate in its hands? Intercepted and fumbled.
The quarterback tango was useless.
Ryan McCann started the game for UCLA and completed five passes. Three to Bruins, two to Cougars. So Cory Paus came back, the starter for most of the season, a proud kid with a sore thumb and the ability to say that, of course, he wanted to start but once he didn't, he didn't want to come in. Because that meant McCann wasn't doing well.
Paus came in.
Paus didn't do any better. He had three passes intercepted.
The Cougars dared UCLA quarterbacks to throw. The Cougars loaded up the defensive front.
"Five defensive linemen in," UCLA Coach Bob Toledo said.
"Then they played bump and run on the corners. We didn't expect that. We'd never seen that."
Yes, the Bruins had seen that before, said tailback DeShaun Foster.
When? "Lots of times," Foster said.
Foster lost something Saturday. Something besides the football. His Heisman dream is over. Because the lost football was so big.
In the third quarter, with UCLA trailing, 10-7, Paus had hit tight end Mike Seidman for 47 yards. It was the biggest play of the game for the Bruins. It put them at the Washington State 21. Then Paus ran for five yards. UCLA had momentum finally. UCLA was moving the football finally. The defense had been saving them and now Paus handed the ball to Foster and it was UCLA's time and UCLA's game.
And Foster fumbled. He got stripped by Fred Shavies. Washington State's Al Genatone picked up the bouncing ball and ran 73 yards for a touchdown. Foster lay on the ground, first grasping at Genatone's foot, then pounding the turf in frustration.
That play lost a game, lost a Heisman.
"We have a lot of soul searching to do between now and next week against Oregon," Toledo said.
By that he meant?
"I don't know," Foster said.
Paus had a better answer.
"We need to find out whether or not we want to win again," the aching quarterback said. "We have our pride to play for. We still have the ability to have a great season."
But the greatness is gone and searching the soul can't make it come back. The locker room was silent Saturday night. All that could be heard was the sound of tape being thrown hard to the ground. Boxes of pizzas sat neatly piled and unopened. No one had much of an appetite.
"We were going uphill all season," said cornerback Ricky Manning, "and all of a sudden now we're in decline. We either rebound or we fail. We have a choice. We have to look deep inside and see what kind of character we all have."
Those are brave words, but they were spoken in a dead voice. Paus spoke in monotone. Foster never looked up. Players shuffled from shower to locker stall to the bus without seeing anything but the junk on the floor.
Two weeks ago, most of Southern California was doing the math, working the calculators, figuring out what it would take to get the Bruins to the Rose Bowl, to the national championship game. Now the Rose Bowl is gone and probably the Fiesta Bowl, too. Sun Bowl reps were handing out brochures in the press box. Playing for the Sun Bowl seems even worse than playing for pride. At least right now.
"It's a very empty feeling we have," Toledo said. "We're very handcuffed right now. There are holes in the dike. We have to plug them up."
"We've lost two games, OK?" Foster said. "We're 6-2. How many teams in the nation are 6-2?" Foster was speaking defiantly, as if he were trying to convince himself. "We're playing for a bowl game. How many teams are playing for a bowl game?"
It's all in the perspective. Their cross-town rivals, the Trojans, would love to be playing for a bowl game come Nov. 17 when they play UCLA. How would that be for irony, that USC could be a bigger winner Nov. 17 than UCLA. Because after aiming for the Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl, the other bowls are just empty bowls.
Diane Pucin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.