Sometimes a football coach can outthink himself, muck matters up and cost his team a potential win.
This happened Saturday at the Rose Bowl, struggling UCLA against plucky Fresno State.
It was the third quarter. The Bruins, to the surprise of many, had made it a tight game. They were behind by just a point, 23-22, but Fresno State had the ball at the Bruins' 15. Third down, the Bulldogs were called for holding. If the Bruins decline the penalty, Fresno State almost certainly goes for a short field goal and the Bruins remain in striking distance.
But UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, brought to Westwood this year partly because the last head coach made too many odd in-game gambles, took the penalty, forcing the Bulldogs to backpedal but giving them a third-down mulligan.
"It pushed them back to third and 22," Neuheisel would grimly explain. "If they make 10 yards on the play, I haven't lost anything. If they throw long downfield and it turns into [an interception], that's a good thing because I save three points."
What actually happened wasn't anything like what Neuheisel hoped. On the next play, Fresno State's senior quarterback stepped back and tossed a short pass that became a touchdown. The air once again sucked from the Bruins, who promptly sputtered when they had the ball, punted and then watched Fresno State quickly march for yet another TD. Just like that, the Bulldogs had a 14-point lead and enough cushion to withstand a UCLA comeback. Final score: Fresno State 36, UCLA 31.
"I understood the risks," noted Neuheisel, who called the move a gamble that "just backfired."
Couldn't have been said better.
Still, if we can take a broad view of this third straight defeat, if we can wipe away the memory of a coaching decision that went terribly haywire, if we can judge the Bruins the way this columnist suggested last week -- focusing more on incremental improvement than on victories and defeats -- then this was actually a fairly decent Saturday for the Bruins.
Step back a bit. Rarely have we seen college football played as poorly as that played by the Bruins over the last two losses, a pair of games in which they were outscored, 90-10. So, when the Rose Bowl filled on Saturday with enough red-shirted Fresno State fans to make this seem like a game hosted in the San Joaquin Valley, and when the Bulldogs scored on a punt return within the game's first minute, it seemed certain more devastation was on its way.
But the Bruins actually led during parts of the game, surprise, surprise. For the first time since this season's opener, they showed real flashes of competence. They were behind only 20-19 at the half, not bad given their recent results.
Compared to what it's been so far this year, the running game was a juggernaut. In the season's first two games, the Bruins rushed for a total of 38 yards. Last week they had 115 yards. This week they had 234, much of that coming from freshman Derrick Coleman, a kid who despite a late fumble that helped doom his team for good in the fourth quarter, looks as if he'll be a difference-maker as the years go by.
And the quarterback? This contest proved that the forward pass still exists in Westwood, even if it's not exactly something that'll make good defenses shudder. Kevin Craft, foggy-headed and unsure most of this season, stood in the pocket with a good bit of calm, 11 times out of 20 hitting his mark. He finished with 150 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Then there was Terrence Austin, who almost single-handedly made the difference for the Bruins. Austin had 250 yards' worth of kickoff and punt returns, a wonderful afternoon that none on hand would have ever forgotten if he hadn't had a 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown negated because of a UCLA holding call.
These were good signs for the Bruins. Real improvement. The defense, expected to be the foundation for this team, was another matter. Fresno State rolled up 443 yards and appeared unstoppable on the most important third-down conversions, all of which left Bruins defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker shaking his head. "It was unfortunate we wasted a nice performance by the offense," he said. "If the defense plays better, we could have won this thing."
There's always next week. Luckily for the Bruins, as they make slow but steady progress, they also catch a break because woeful Washington State comes to Pasadena. If there's a team struggling more mightily in college football than the Bruins, it's the Cougars, who lost to Oregon on Saturday, 63-14.
Maybe knowing Washington State is headed south is what gave Neuheisel the gumption to stand on the field at game's end and speak to Bruins fans with a confidence that's unusual coming from the leader of a one-win, three-loss team.
"This will change, I promise you!" he shouted through a microphone. "We improved today . . . we're going to keep fighting. We're going to come back next week and get a win!"
Could be. It will certainly help if the new coach doesn't muck matters up with another boneheaded gamble.