UCLA continued a meandering journey, trying to find its place in the college football world.
After Saturday, the Bruins and their fans can sleep soundly knowing that last place in the Pacific 10 Conference is an unlikely final destination this season. A 28-3 victory over Washington State at the Rose Bowl seemed to make that abundantly clear.
The Bruins (2-3 overall, 1-1 in conference play) were far from dominating. They were, after all, the first conference team to be held under 60 points by the Cougars (1-5, 0-3) this season.
But quarterback Kevin Craft was efficient enough and tailback Kahlil Bell repeatedly burrowed into the Cougars' defensive front. The Bruins defense, which spent the last three games back-peddling, pretty much smothered an anemic Washington State offense.
The Bruins' performance had fans reduced to entertaining themselves with a lengthy version of "the wave" early in the third quarter while UCLA had the ball. But it was strong medicine for a team that had been outscored, 136-41, in losing three straight games after opening with a victory over Tennessee.
"It gives us, I don't want to say validation because we're trying to win a lot of games, but it gives us sense we're on the right path," guard Scott Glicksberg said. "It gives us a sense that all this hard work, all these off-season workouts, meant something and everyone is pulling on the ropes collectively."
Beyond that, the Bruins remain a mystery.
So far, all the Tennessee victory has proven is that the Bruins could probably handle Alabama and Illinois -- Alabama Birmingham and Northern Illinois that is. Those are the two teams the Volunteers have beaten this season. And the Washington State victory leaves no doubt that the Bruins could handle Portland State, which lost to the Cougars, 48-9.
The Bruins status will undoubtedly be more clear a week from now, after going on the road to face an Oregon team that was routed by USC on Saturday.
"This team is maturing every week," defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said. "The maturity we had today will help us at Oregon. Our goal is still to win the Pac-10 title. We're tied with USC, right?"
They are. The Bruins, though, have plenty of work to do before meeting the Trojans in their regular-season finale. For starters, UCLA managed only 100 yards rushing against a Washington State team that had been giving up 269 yards rushing per game.
"Obviously, the inability to be real consistent running the football against a team that has been given up a lot of yards is a concern," Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "We have more work to do. We have lots more work to do. But getting a victory in the Pac-10 is never easy."
UCLA took satisfaction in beating Washington State at the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1998, ending a three-game losing streak. It was methodical and some what predictable, as the Cougars have already lost to California (66-3) and Oregon (63-14) this season.
"The thing is, the program has hit hard times," Washington State Coach Paul Wulff said, assessing his team this week. "It's going to build, but the tough part is dealing where we're at right now. It's not an X-and-O thing, it's not a coaching thing, it's not individual people. It's an overall culture that went sideways."
Nothing that occurred Saturday should be cause for alarm to any of the conference's top teams. But for the Bruins, this was progress.
"It's been a month since we tasted victory, so it was exciting to share that excitement in the locker room," Neuheisel said.
Craft guided the Bruins on three long touchdown drives. It was his most effective game this season. He completed 23 of 36 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns to tight end Ryan Moya, covering 15 and 12 yards.
Bell had 43 yards in 21 slam-into-the-wall carries, including two one-yard touchdown runs.
That was more than enough offense against a Cougars, and the Bruins defense made sure of that.
Washington State finished with 177 yards. The Bruins, who had four sacks coming into the game, matched that Saturday. The Cougars turned the ball over only once, but it was costly. Alterraun Verner's third-quarter interception gave the Bruins the ball on the Washington State 27. Craft then hit Moya with a touchdown pass.
"It shows that what we're doing is starting to work and the Pac 10 title is still at stake, baby," Bell said.
Times staff writer Diane Pucin contributed to this report.