Craig Rutledge was explaining for the fifth time what happened. He was telling how it was. He was sitting on a bench in a corner of the locker room and quietly telling it so that maybe it would begin to make sense to him.
Then, even though Rutledge had showered and changed into a suit, UCLA’s strong safety began to sweat again. And the circle of reporters moved in closer.
What Rutledge so patiently explained was how his mistake at the end of the second quarter allowed a Washington touchdown and dramatically changed the course of Saturday’s game. The Huskies won, 21-14, and remarkably, Rutledge was ready to take personal responsibility for the loss.
The play, which the Huskies call an X Corner , was a cleverly designed pass pattern that seemed destined to make a stooge out of a defensive back. It’s a play that Washington installed the week of the game with UCLA and used only once during the game. Once was enough.
UCLA had scored to go up, 14-3, and kicked off with 1 minute 15 seconds left in the first half. To that point, the Bruins had seemed to rumble along smoothly. This was not going to be a game UCLA would have to pull out at the last minute. No need. Or so it seemed.
David Trimble took back the kickoff 30 yards to the Washington 40. After one incomplete pass, quarterback Hugh Millen completed three passes to move the Huskies to UCLA’s 31.
Another incomplete pass. The crowd of 60,801 let out a booming roar, accompanied by toots from boats moored on Lake Washington, just outside Husky Stadium.
The crowd stood and stamped its feet on the aging wooden bleachers. With one second left in the first half, Millen droped back and eyed his three receivers strung out downfield. Trimble had gone like a bolt deep up the middle. Lonzell Hill had executed a discreet post pattern on the left sideline.
Covering for UCLA was its baby-boomer backfield--sophomores Rutledge and James Washington, and freshman Darryl Henley.
This is a group used to being picked on. Even though the Bruins are a young team, the defensive secondary is the pre-schoolers of the bunch. Almost before they could register for classes, they were into starting positions.
They have learned from pressure. And, in that fateful play, there was plenty of it.
As Rutledge explained it: “They lined up two guys outside and one split. The three of us (UCLA defenders) each had one-third of the field. I was responsible for the outside one-third, on the left sideline.
“Trimble ran up the middle, and I saw the quarterback look deep. I thought he was going to throw deep. I should have started to the outside. The free safety (Washington) would have picked up Trimble. I just assumed he was going to throw long.”
He didn’t. Instead, Hill, who was Rutledge’s responsibility, was open on the sideline. He made the catch on the five, spun around Rutledge (who, realizing the play fake, had dashed over to the sideline) and met Henley in the end zone.
“The play worked just as we designed it--I was wide open,” Hill said.
It was a play designed to confound and confuse. Trimble was to lure the outside man off his coverage and leave it to Hill to slide beneath the coverage and get open.
For Rutledge, 21, it was an error in judgment that he took hard, but with dignity.
Even after UCLA Coach Terry Donahue declined to name the player he said had “made a mental error,” Rutledge identified himself to the press.
‘It was my fault all the way,” Rutledge said. “It was a big mistake. I was so out of position. It cost us a lot, definitely.”
Rutledge was brutally accurate. With a two-point conversion making it 14-11, the Huskies were suddenly back in the game.
“We had broken coverage right before the first half,” Donahue said, describing the play. “When you kick the ball with 1:15 left, you don’t expect to give up a touchdown and two points.
“We had busted coverage by one of our real good players, who is also a real good kid. He just made a mental error.
“It was a real central point of the game. Our guys didn’t quit or go into the tank. But our kids didn’t need that.”
No, the morale of the secondary didn’t need it. It’s a tight group that admits it shares pain. Henley sat next to Rutledge and nodded gravely as his teammate dissected the error. Henley even managed to implicate himself in Rutledge’s negligence.
Perhaps Henley was empathizing because his late hit on Millen gave the Huskies the field position for a third-quarter field goal that tied the game at 14-14.
“That penalty really hurt us,” Henley said. “I was going for the ball. I didn’t think there was enough contact, but the referee thought it was a penalty, so it was. That was a turning point for them, too.”
It may have been a pivotal experience for both Rutledge and Henley. In a football sense, they learned and can file away the game and draw from the experience.
But there was more. Their admission and graceful acceptance of responsibility may have been the most powerful lesson of the day.