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KURT STREETER

This week, Bad News Bears

October 26, 2008|KURT STREETER

BERKELEY — Looked at in a certain very particular way -- granted, with glasses tinted rosy and perhaps a bit of willful naivete -- the 2008 football Bruins are the most exciting team in the Pac-10.

One week, it's a monumental comeback and a surprising win. The next week it's a drubbing.

One week, the defense is pretty much water-tight. The next week it's springing more leaks than the the Titanic.

One week, the quarterback looks like a mini-Montana at game's end. Next time out, he has four ugly interceptions (sometimes the four interceptions come in a single half -- e.g., the Tennessee game.)

Maybe, just maybe, there's a certain beauty in not knowing what the heck you're gonna get week in and week out.

Think of the Stanford game. When the Bruins made a key defensive stop and followed with a magical last-ditch drive that brought victory, some said this young team was on its way. There was even talk that UCLA might qualify for a bowl game.

And so, here we were in Berkeley this weekend, thinking that maybe the Bruins would unleash some of that Stanford game magic on the Golden Bears.

Then it happened: a 41-20 loss on a warm Saturday in Strawberry Canyon. A rout, really. Back to square one. Again.

Here's a snapshot encapsulating UCLA's day: It's the first play of the game and Kevin Craft goes back to pass. He throws a ball that wobbles toward its target. The ball clangs off a Bruins receiver. The ball falls softly into the hands of a Golden Bears defender.

UCLA was artless most of the way, an aesthetic largely matched by the Golden Bears until they put the hammer down at the end.

UCLA's first two offensive series brought the following: seven plays, two sacks, no yards gained, two passes stoned off the hands, the interception. At the end of the first quarter the Bruins had minus-three rushing yards and no passing yards. They scored only because they blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown.

Sadly for them, the next time they got the ball after that blocked punt, quarterback Craft was intercepted again and it was returned 69 yards for a touchdown -- one of two returns for touchdowns off of Craft passes.

Speaking of Craft, when it was over, almost all of the talk from the UCLA side was of the ugly offense in general and the junior quarterback in particular.

Coach Rick Neuheisel on Craft: "To me, it looked like he had just made up his mind and was throwing the ball where he thought it should go."

From Brigham Harwell, defensive lineman: "Turnovers [killed] us."

Norm Chow, offensive coordinator, trying not to show frustration but you could see it in his eyes, on Craft: "Uh, it is easy to say there is some magical answer. . . . [But] he is who he is."

Craft, who it must never be forgotten is actually a reserve starting because of injuries, has played exceedingly well during small windows of time. But like the rest of his team, inconsistency hangs on him like a pair of leaden shoulder pads.

Thing is, he knows what's going on, and in a true testament to his character, he's not running from it.

For half an hour after the game, he sat in the locker room with his head down, dazed, depressed, mumbling answers to questions such as this one: At what point are you responsible for what's going on out here? "Uh . . . you know . . . I think, uh . . . you know. . . . I don't think four picks and two for touchdowns is good for any quarterback . . ."

Almost everyone I approached said they were looking for answers but were unsure where to find them.

Neuheisel noted that the game went the way he wanted for a good while -- fairly close until the fourth quarter -- but his squad just couldn't keep up. We "have to come down as we did against Tennessee and Stanford and win the game at the end," he said.

This is the team, remember, that started the season by beating a big, bad Southeastern Conference team. (Tennessee's post-Los Angeles results show that the Vols aren't very good, but we can still count it as a nice upset.)

This is a team that hung in against Oregon and sent Stanford heading back to the land of Google with heads between tails, but also a team that failed to show up against Brigham Young and got walked over by Fresno State.

Let's face it, aside from some surprisingly strong play by a handful of freshmen, some pretty solid defense and some good coaching of an undermanned squad, there isn't much to get giddy about right now.

Maybe the only way to have any fun with this year's Bruins is to put on those rose-tinted glasses and hail them for what they are: generally bad, but not always; sometimes they've been sort of good.

For the sake of argument, let's just call them maddeningly inconsistent. Depending on how you look at it, there's a certain sort of excitement in that.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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