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Kurt Streeter

This team can be judged only on slip-sliding scale

September 21, 2008|Kurt Streeter

This time, at least they showed up.

This time, at least the UCLA football team, sputtering and twisting and sliding after last week's meltdown, made it somewhat close.

The scoreboard read 31-10 at the end of the Bruins' Saturday loss to Arizona. Coming off four quarters that finished up 59-0 against Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, 31-10 can be reframed as a major step in the right direction.

Given what the Bruins have to work with this season, that's how it must be taken.

Wins and losses? Fuhgetaboutit. At the moment, fretting too much about winning and losing is frivolous. You don't worry about the sound of your muffler when the car you're in is speeding toward the edge of a cliff.

Defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker perhaps said it best when he surveyed the postgame damage and said: "To me, getting better is more important than wins and losses right now."

In other words, what matters is whether or not UCLA's revamped coaching staff can make this team better, snap by snap, series by series. Players showing heart, guts and concentration on the field. Learning to hit open receivers, covering punts, running the ball with consistency and that most essential of football skills, tackling.

Asking more wouldn't be fair, largely because UCLA just doesn't have the talent right now. The Bruins hung in last year after injuries forced them to play second stringers and their fourth-best quarterback in big games. Now, despite the adrenaline-fueled opening win over Tennessee, it clearly isn't just the cupboard that's bare. It's the kitchen, the basement pantry, the dining room, the house, the backyard, the neighborhood. They are thin where they should be thick, slow where they should be fast, weak where they need strength. More, they are inexperienced.

So yes, progress -- small, in-game victories -- is what we should look for.

Last week they were down, 42-0, at the half. This time they were outclassed in all phases but trailed only 17-10 after two quarters. The defense had made it a battle. The running game had gotten a little bit better. With just under nine minutes left in the third quarter, it seemed like UCLA should have been down by four touchdowns. Instead they had the ball at midfield, and if they weren't quite marching down the field, they were at least inching forward. Improvement? Yes.

Sadly for Bruins fans, soon they were forced to punt. At least it was a deep one, and as had happened several times in the first half, Arizona found itself pinned close to its end zone. Progress? Sad to say, but considering last week, you bet.

Of course, Arizona isn't USC. Arizona probably isn't even Fresno State, the team that buses to the Rose Bowl next Saturday. Arizona came to Pasadena after getting beaten last week by lowly New Mexico. For much of this game, Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama's arm was as loose and unpredictable as a garden hose with water gushing through at full throttle.

And for much of this game, nobody on his team looked any better. Maybe they'd been lulled to sleep because there were so few fans in the stadium. The announced crowd was 65,434, but it looked more like half that. Coach Rick Neuheisel, of course, thanked the crowd at game's end -- for not booing. Progress? Well, going back to last year when negativity rained down on the Rose Bowl field in torrents, sure.

The crowd, however, could not keep the Wildcats sleepy all afternoon. Everyone watching knew this would happen. In the fourth quarter, Arizona's quarterback began finding his targets. In a flash, 17-10 became 24-10 and then 31-10.

Like last week, UCLA players gave all of the right answers when the press moved through the morgue-like locker room. There were about 10 variations of "we are going to come back from this and get better" and nine different strains of "we were right there where we wanted to be," and a clanging chorus of "nobody has lost any confidence . . . we believe."

As you might imagine, it would be foolish to take at face value much of what was being said. This team is shaking, has lost its moxie and confidence, and is close to sliding off the map this season. The Bruins will almost surely slide into oblivion if they focus on the wrong things now. Like the standings and how far off they are from USC. Winning and losing should be far from their minds. It's time to get a little Zen-like. Time to be in the moment and measure every play and drive individually. Time to focus entirely on signs of sure, steady progress, no matter how small. Asking for anything more with a thin-legged team like this would simply be unfair.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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