Terry Donahue’s fondest wish would have been to play turnover-free football against a team that fumbled three times and threw an interception. In his wildest imagination, it couldn’t have happened.
“I would think that if they turned it over four times, we would win the game,” the UCLA coach said after the Bruins didn’t Saturday, falling to eighth-ranked Nebraska, 14-13, at the Rose Bowl.
“We certainly had our chances,” Donahue added.
The Bruins (0-2) had a 53-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty, took a sack that pushed them out of easy field-goal range, missed field-goal attempts of 53 and 44 yards and made two field goals when drives were stopped by sacks.
“We’re a good football team. We showed we’re a good football team,” Bruin quarterback Wayne Cook said. “We just need to learn how to win.”
They have lost two games by a total of three points.
In the end, it came down to Nebraska’s power game, and the running of I-back Lawrence Phillips, a Baldwin Park High product who came on in the second quarter after starter Damon Benning had fumbled twice.
Phillips rushed for 137 yards in 28 carries, scoring Nebraska’s first touchdown and setting up the second with eight carries during a 14-play drive that gave the Cornhuskers a 14-10 lead in the third quarter.
“I thought I’d be lucky to get 13 or 15 carries,” said Phillips, actually the third-string I-back, considering first-stringer Calvin Jones was left in Lincoln to nurse his knee. “It was really the linemen. They were getting me five yards every time I carried.”
He was countered by UCLA’s Skip Hicks, also a freshman, who was playing because starter Daron Washington was injured in the season-opening loss to California.
Hicks rushed for 148 yards in 19 carries and scored UCLA’s touchdown on a six-yard run in the second quarter.
“I think he can be a difference-maker,” said Donahue, whose definition of a difference-maker in Bruin lore includes Gaston Green and Troy Aikman. “I also would have liked to have had him in there in the fourth quarter.”
He didn’t, because Hicks suffered an ankle sprain on his last carry, a 23-yard run to the Nebraska 14 to open the fourth quarter.
Four plays later, UCLA had its final points on Bjorn Merten’s 27-yard field goal, and the Bruins were left to try to finish their comeback with Sharmon Shah’s running and Cook’s passing. It wasn’t enough.
UCLA served notice it would not be intimidated when Hicks took a handoff from the Bruin 47 on the game’s fourth play. “There was a hole, and when I got through it, I didn’t see anything but grass in front of me,” he said.
But behind him, the grass was littered with a yellow handkerchief, tackle Vaughn Parker having been detected holding on the other side of the line from the run. The play was called back and the series ended with a UCLA punt, but a fair amount of optimism.
“We were frustrated, but we had showed we could move the ball on those guys,” Cook said.
Only the six sacks taken by Cook that totaled 33 yards kept the Bruins from outrushing Nebraska. But that movement often took place in the middle of the field. Deep in Cornhusker territory, things got tougher.
The first time the Bruins got close, after Cook hit Kevin Jordan for 29 yards and Hicks ran twice for 15 yards on a drive to the Nebraska 16, they were thwarted. Cook was sacked by Terry Connealy on a third-and-11 play that was a sign of things to come, and Merten was left to kick a 39-yard field goal for the game’s first points with 13 seconds to play in the opening quarter.
After an interception by Tommy Bennett put UCLA on its 45, the Bruins moved to Nebraska’s 26, where Cook was sacked by Ed Stewart on third and six. The nine-yard loss pushed Merten’s field-goal effort back to 53 yards, and it was wide right, his first collegiate failure after three successes.
After Hicks had scored to give UCLA a 10-0 lead and Phillips had countered to cut the margin to 10-7, the Bruins started a drive from their 16. Seven plays later, including runs of 17 and 15 yards by Hicks and Cook’s pass to J.J. Stokes that covered 30 yards, UCLA was down to six seconds at Nebraska’s 26.
“The defense was playing real well, and it looked like it was going to be a low-scoring game,” Donahue said of the decision to go for the three points on second down, rather than taking a shot at the end zone.
Merten missed a 44-yard effort, again wide to the right.
“I think that 53-yard miss got to me,” he said. “It was a blow to my confidence, even though a 53-yarder is no gimme. That last try in the first half, I was aiming the ball instead of just kicking it, so I pushed it.”
Nebraska took the lead for good, 14-10, on Tommie Frazier’s 11-yard pass to tight end Gerald Armstrong with 6:56 to play in the third quarter, and Merten countered with his 27-yard field goal in the fourth.
The game cost more than a loss on the Bruin ledger. Donahue’s fear about coming away from playing Nebraska with injuries provide valid. Besides Hicks being sidelined for most of the fourth quarter, the Bruins lost center James Christensen and tight end Brian Richards to knee injuries on the same play, with 5:33 remaining in the third quarter, and the results could linger.
“It’s going to be difficult to put the pieces of the team back together offensively,” Donahue said.
Quick reconstruction will be necessary, because the Bruins travel to Stanford next Saturday.
Of the one-point loss to Nebraska, Donahue said: “I don’t believe in moral victories, and I don’t think people who follow UCLA football believe in moral victories.”
Said Cook: “We know now that we can play. We know no one can blow us out.”
The evidence is there.
“UCLA is a good team,” Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. “Against California, they should have won, and today, they could have won.”
But the Bruins didn’t, and the quest to learn how to win continues.