TEMPE, ARIZ. — In the space of 46 seconds, as long as it took UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft to throw two of his three interceptions, have one returned 100 yards for a touchdown, another returned 45 yards for a touchdown, the chance for a win went away.
Instead of maybe tying the score in the fourth quarter, UCLA was blown away, 34-9, by Arizona State on Friday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
There is always the desperate desire to win the big rivalry game and UCLA fans and players will stick out their collective chests and point to a 13-9 Bruins win over USC two years ago that kept the Trojans out of a national championship game as proof that anything can happen.
But what can't happen this season is for UCLA to be one of the 68 teams invited to a post-season bowl game.
UCLA (4-7, 3-5) was guaranteed a losing year with this loss to Arizona State (5-6, 4-4).
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said he felt badly for the UCLA defense, which gave up only 122 yards, lowest by an opponent since the 1989 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas.
Craft's three interceptions didn't help. The whole Bruins offense didn't help, said tailback Khalil Bell.
"It's disgusting," Bell said. "We keep talking all this rah-rah stuff. It's going to be an embarrassing game next week if we don't get better."
Just when UCLA seemed poised for a surprising comeback road win, Craft had a pass intercepted by safety Troy Nolan in the end zone. Nolan returned the pass that had been intended for Marcus Everett 100 yards for a touchdown with 9 minutes 50 seconds left to put Arizona State ahead, 24-9.
Less than a minute later, Craft had a pass intercepted for the third time, this one by Mike Nixon, who returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.
Nixon had signed a UCLA football letter of intent before deciding to go into the Dodgers farm system after high school. In 2005, Nixon gave up baseball and arrived at Arizona State for football, but such trivia didn't matter to the downcast Bruins.
"I thought our defensive play was great," Neuheisel said. He also made a point of saying he needed to be certain the defense wasn't discouraged by the offensive troubles. "We have to keep that divisiveness away."
UCLA scored first, a 53-yard Kai Forbath field goal on a drive where Craft completed, in one stretch, five straight passes.
That sequence would turn out to be the highlight of the game for the beleaguered Bruins quarterback, who was pummeled and pounded, whacked in the ribs and seemingly disconcerted by pressure, real or imagined, bedeviled by whistles he may or may not have heard.
Arizona State's first touchdown came when Craft tried to cock his arm on a second-and-eight play at his 21. Craft's arm was hit, the ball fluttered forward and freshman running back Derrick Coleman casually scooped the ball off the ground as if he considered the play an incomplete pass. Craft said he thought the play was dead too.
"I heard a lot of whistles," Craft said.
But no whistle was blown and Nixon swatted the ball away from Coleman and linebacker Paul 'Unga returned what was considered a fumble and not a forward pass 17 yards for a touchdown.
It was that kind of night for Craft.
Arizona State's second touchdown was from a more conventional Craft mistake, a pass that was tipped then intercepted and returned 38 yards by linebacker Travis Goethel. It was Goethel's first interception touchdown return and Craft sat on the bench with his head down.
Craft did lead a final first-half scoring drive that began at the UCLA 14 with 1:56 left and ended with another Forbath field goal, this one of 38 yards, as time ran out. The biggest play on the scoring drive was a 20-yard Craft pass to Nelson Rosario.
The Sun Devils extended their lead to 17-6 early in the third quarter on a 31-yard field goal by Thomas Weber though the three points weren't quite the reward hoped for after Kyle Williams returned an Aaron Perez punt 64 yards to the UCLA 19.
Dec. 6, 1:30 p.m.
at the Rose Bowl
The Bruins will pin their hopes on rivalry pride after their hopes of playing in a bowl game ended at Sun Devil Stadium on Friday. Still, an upset over the Trojans (remember 13-9 UCLA two years ago?) would make Rick Neuheisel's first UCLA coaching year a success. The Trojans, though, have won eight of the last nine meetings between the teams.
-- Diane Pucin
UCLA's Craft is painful to watch
That's how it felt for T.J. Simers at Arizona State on Friday night. PAGE 2