Coach Don James of the Washington Huskies must be taking speech lessons from Joe Isuzu.
James told anyone who would listen that his poor, undermanned Huskies would probably be dog meat for the No. 2-ranked UCLA Bruins in Saturday’s Pacific 10 Conference opener at Husky Stadium.
The James Gang, however, almost ambushed the Bruins.
Washington, a 13-point underdog at the kickoff, had UCLA on the ropes, taking a 17-10 third-quarter lead before the Bruins rallied for a 24-17 win over the 16th-ranked Huskies.
“I’ve never been happy about a loss,” James said after UCLA handed Washington its first defeat in four games this season. “But I’m not going to hang my head, and I don’t think our players will. I think we did a good job. We played a strong opponent, and we played our best game of the season. We showed improvement, and that was encouraging.
“We had a chance for a win or a tie, but we let it get away. Our staff and players did a marvelous job. UCLA is just awesome.”
James thought the Huskies had to gamble to knock off the Bruins, but one of his biggest gambles may have backfired.
With the score tied, 17-17, in the fourth quarter, James called for a fake field goal after a Husky drive stalled at the UCLA 30-yard line with 6:18 remaining.
Kicker John McCallum lined up to attempt a 46-yard field goal, but the snap went to the holder, quarterback Cary Conklin. Conklin pitched the ball to fullback Tony Covington, but the Bruins nailed him for a loss of 4 yards.
James defended the play. “It might have looked like a dumb call on my part, but you have to gamble against a team like UCLA,” he said. “We knew we had to either punt or kick a long field goal, but we decided to gamble. It was there, but Tony just didn’t get outside.”’
Said Conklin: “In hindsight it looks like we should have kicked it, but we had been working on that play all week and we thought it was going to work. The defense just got too much penetration on it.”
Conklin, maligned by the fans and media here for his lackluster performances in the Huskies’ previous wins over Purdue, Army and San Jose State, played a superb game against the Bruin defense, completing 19 of 37 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
“We had them on the ropes and we let them off the hook,” Connklin said. “I don’t think UCLA was overrated, I think we just played a great football game today, and they know it.”
Conklin almost pulled it out after UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman gave the Bruins the lead when he hooked up with split end Reggie Moore on a 48-yard touchdown pass play with 1:28 remaining.
Conklin drove the Huskies from their 20 into UCLA territory. He escaped a sack to throw a 33-yard pass to tight end Aaron Pierce to the UCLA 36-yard line with 17 seconds remaining.
But the Huskies ran out of time, UCLA defensive back Darryl Henley swatting away Conklin’s desperation pass intended for flanker Brian Slater as time ran out.
“I just wish we had had another minute,” Conklin said. “I think we might have been able to pull it out. It’s frustrating to play this well and still lose.”
Tailback Vince Weathersby called it a moral victory for the Huskies. “It’s frustrating to come out on the losing end, but we feel better after this loss than we did after our wins because we proved that we can play with one of the best teams in the nation,” Weathersby said. “We just have to try to win our next seven games and go to the Rose Bowl.”
Although Washington’s defense did a nice job of containing Aikman and UCLA’s potent offense, the Huskies were hurt by a couple of questionable penalties.
The most devastating one was a roughing-the-passer call that went against Dennis Brown, Washington’s star defensive tackle.
With Washington leading, 17-10, in the third quarter, its defense appeared to have pushed the Bruin offense almost to the shore of Lake Washington when Aikman misfired on third down at midfield. But UCLA kept the game-tying drive alive when Brown collided with Aikman after he threw the pass.
“The ref said that I hit him 5 seconds after he had thrown the pass,” Brown said. “I won’t be able to say for sure what happened until I see the films. But I know it was close.”
Aikman said: “I don’t know if it was a late hit or not. I’ve never shied away from getting hit, but I was concentrating on the play.”
Given a reprieve, Aikman went on to march UCLA to the tying touchdown, and then he took advantage of a mixup in Washington"s defensive coverage to pull out the win.
The Husky defensive backs said they got their pass coverage confused on Aikman’s winning touchdown pass to Moore as cornerback Art Malone was badly beaten by Moore on the play.
Malone, a hero earlier in the game when he recovered a fumble that led to Washington’s go-ahead touchdown, was victimized on the play. Moore refused to talk to reporters afterward. However, his teammates rallied around him.
“There was a lot of confusion in the huddle before the play,” cornerback Le-Lo Lang said. “Some guys thought it was supposed to be a 6-free coverage and some guys thought it was a straight 6. There was a lot of commotion with all the crowd noise, and they capitalized on the confusion.
“It’s difficult to accept a loss like this because we played a great game and we might have beaten them except for a few bad breaks.”