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Kurt Streeter

Bruins should use this win to build confidence

October 05, 2008|Kurt Streeter

First quarter, first play, a kickoff bends into the Rose Bowl air and settles into the arms of UCLA's Terrence Austin.

This is supposed to be the start of a nice stroll for the hometown Bruins, who, despite their woes, are favored by 17 points against lowly Washington State.

That's what you're thinking -- how easy this will be -- when Austin streaks down the sideline for a nice gain and then UCLA follows with a first down.

But then the Bruins that we've become too familiar with crop up: The offense drags to a halt. On the sideline, Rick Neuheisel's face glows red with anger and frustration. Punt.

It's an odd evening in Pasadena. Light rain at first, mist, cold, the stands nowhere near full, most of the fans seemingly more concerned with the Dodgers game than the action before them. This is a lazy night, the kind that can knock the favorite asleep and allow an upset.

Cougars ball. Third and one at their own 36. With a stop, the Bruins' defense could put a stamp on this game. That's the way it was supposed to work all season, defense first, remember?

This time, again, it doesn't happen -- Washington State runs for a two-yard gain. A thought passes through your mind: Oh no, not again. Then the Cougars grind to a halt. Punt.

Can UCLA do better on offense? Nope. They clunk forward, lurch, stop dead.

It goes like this for some time, a battle of punts. Ten minutes march off the clock. You wonder what's wrong?

Remember, this is Washington State. At quarterback, they start a redshirt freshman who was third-string until injuries gave him playing time. The Cougars lost to California by 63, to Oregon by 49, Baylor by 28. They began the game 96th in the nation in total offense, 106th in total defense. There are 119 teams at college football's highest level. Enough said.

But on the Bruins' sideline now there are more grimaces, more heads down and sloped shoulders, just like the last few games.

Maybe it's bad luck. A Cougar fumbles. The ball squirms around like a salmon tossed on a fishing boat deck; there it goes, through one UCLA defender, then another, then another -- right through what must be scores of hands, until a red-helmeted Cougar picks it up.

Ugh. That hurts.

After the upset of Tennessee, more was expected. But maybe, as none other than John Wooden wondered aloud while watching at the Rose Bowl last week, that win was the worst thing that could have happened to this young team. Maybe they thought it was somehow easy, maybe they somehow fell into a trap opened by ego.

Remember those Washington State stats? UCLA isn't much better. Going into Saturday, they were 114th nationally in total offense, 101st on defense.

"We'll need a mercy rule to end this thing," someone in the press box says.

Maybe that's not a bad idea.

But the second quarter comes, it's a few minutes in and the Bruins have the ball in good position. Kevin Craft, also starting because of injuries, slips into the backfield and lofts a pass that travels 15 yards until it's caught in the end zone by junior Ryan Moya. Touchdown Bruins.

Players dance on the sideline, Neuheisel raises his arms, his angry look replaced by one of relief. Finally.

Now UCLA has the ball back. Craft suddenly looks like he did against Tennessee, confident and fluid. With the ball on his team's 24, there's a scrum of Cougars around him and one of the defenders has Craft by the legs. The quarterback begins falling but somehow finds an open man. Nice gain. Another minute passes. A run: touchdown again.

Stop here. Pay attention. This little second quarter sequence could end up being the most important moment of the Bruins' season. Had it not happened, had it not given them some hope, a small shot of confidence on a cold night, this season might now be lost for good. For once, during the middle of a game, UCLA could breathe.

It can't be overlooked, of course, that this team counts so much on youngsters.

Almost all of the best players are juniors and sophomores. The freshman class, topped so far by defensive back Rahim Moore, looks special.

True, this season could easily end with just one more win -- Washington is about as bad as Washington State. But so long as the young players keep their wits and don't lose confidence, there's reason for Bruins fans to hope for far better days.

The first half ends. UCLA 14, Washington State 0. Their first halftime lead all season.

Much of the second half, it turns out, is as ugly as the first. The Cougars, simply put, looked like they'd be overmatched by Long Beach Poly High.

From the team we care about, there were flubbed passes, bad tackles and blown assignments. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

But there was also a deft Alterraun Vener interception, another Craft touchdown pass to Moya, a nice bunch of first downs, even if it was all witnessed by the sparsest of Rose Bowl crowds.

Final score: UCLA 28, Washington State 3. A good evening for the Bruins for once. They can't get too happy, after all, this was Wazzu on the other side. But at least they can travel to Eugene next week with shoulders back and heads held high.


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