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THE RIVALRY : A Difference in Perspective : Bruin Season Ending on a Down Note

TIMES STAFF WRITER

UCLA vs. USC.

On a bright Saturday afternoon nine days ago, this was shaping up as another classic matchup. The Bruins appeared to be ascending, the Trojans descending. And the paths of these archrivals would intersect at the Coliseum on Nov. 18, with both teams possibly still in the hunt for a treasured berth in the Rose Bowl.

When UCLA took the field in Tempe, Ariz., early on that Saturday afternoon to warm up for the game against Arizona State, the Bruins were a rejuvenated team, a four-game winning streak having nearly made up for two devastating losses to open their Pacific 10 Conference season.

And the news from games in progress buoyed UCLA’s optimism. USC and Washington, the teams ahead of the Bruins in the conference standings, were losing, the Trojans, 24-10, to Stanford in the second quarter. If both USC and Washington lost and the Bruins won, UCLA would be half a game out of the conference lead with games ahead against both.

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It was to be, however, the Bruins’ last whiff of the roses.

USC came back to beat Stanford, 31-30, while UCLA blew a 27-10 halftime lead to Arizona State and fell, 37-33, then lost the following week to Washington, 38-14.

Now, on this dreary Monday in Westwood, five days before L.A.'s annual college football showdown, the quest for a bowl slot has turned into a salvage operation for the Bruins.

What is left to salvage, the Trojans having already clinched a Rose Bowl berth, is UCLA’s pride and a probable spot in the Aloha Bowl, to be played in Hawaii on Christmas Day.

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If the Bruins lose Saturday, there might still be slots open in games like the Independence Bowl or the Liberty Bowl. But how attractive would a 6-5 UCLA team that had lost three in a row be? Still, it’s a big-name team from a large television market, so don’t rule out those possibilities.

It’s not hard to figure out how the Bruins let it all get away in only nine days. Look at how many times they have let the football get away. In the last six quarters, UCLA has turned the ball over nine times on five fumbles and four interceptions.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, the Bruins go into Saturday’s game with question marks hanging over the heads of their two best offensive players.

The question about tailback Karim Abdul-Jabbar concerns his right ankle. He sprained it on the very first play of the Washington game and did not return.

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Coach Terry Donahue has labeled Abdul-Jabbar “very, very doubtful” for Saturday.

But that may not mean much as the week wears on. When Abdul-Jabbar left the BYU game because of a back bruise and needed a wheelchair for the trip home, Donahue described Abdul-Jabbar as looking like “a 90-year-old man” and didn’t give him much hope at all of returning for the following week. Abdul-Jabbar not only returned seven days later against Oregon, but ran for 127 yards.

So expect all eyes to be on the trainer’s room this week, but don’t expect any definitive answers on Abdul-Jabbar’s availability until Thursday, Friday or maybe even Saturday morning.

There’s nothing wrong with freshman quarterback Cade McNown. Nothing that a little protection wouldn’t help.

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McNown completed only seven of 19 passes against Washington and was picked off three times. But his offensive line, considered among college football’s best, was uncharacteristically inefficient and overmatched against the Huskies.

Donahue finally pulled McNown in the second half, perhaps for his safety as much as anything else, but says McNown will be back as the starter this week.

McNown has shown a surprising amount of poise for an 18-year-old freshman, but the question for Saturday is whether he’ll be able to retain that poise in this pressure-filled game.

This is the time to dust off all the cliches about how the season records and individual numbers don’t mean anything in this game, how people playing in a UCLA-USC matchup have traditionally risen to the occasion.

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But Bruin linebacker Abdul McCullough isn’t so sure about his team.

“We just can’t seem to get all the pieces of the puzzle together,” he said. “Hopefully we will with USC. That’s the game that lights a fire under people.

“But we couldn’t get up for Washington and we couldn’t get up for the Cotton Bowl [a possibility for UCLA before the Washington game]. We couldn’t get up with all this stuff on the line. We just can’t seem to play.”

Not exactly the way they were thinking nine days ago.

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THE RIVALRY: Saturday at the Coliseum 12:30 p.m.


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