Bruins Teeter but Hang On
The UCLA Bruins have gone beyond flirting with disaster. They’ve taken it to the altar.
Somehow their winning streak keeps growing even as their margin for error keeps shrinking.
The streak is now at 17. That wriggle room got down to two yards Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Stanford receiver Jeff Allen was only two strides from the touchdown that could have put the Cardinal ahead late in the game and thrown all of those Bruin national championship hopes into the trash can.
Suddenly UCLA cornerback Marques Anderson pried the ball loose and it popped into the end zone, where safety Larry Atkins recovered the fumble.
Just like that the Bruins were only 4 minutes 19 seconds away from a 28-24 victory that, outside of Westwood, only a computer could love.
When the numbers get crunched, that 7-0 record should be enough to keep UCLA on track for the Fiesta Bowl, be it as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The Bruins are kind of like President Clinton; the polls keep showing favorable results no matter how much they mess up.
So rather than spend so much time accounting for what went wrong, all UCLA needs are simple explanations such as the one offered by cornerback Ryan Roques: “We’re a team that knows how to win.”
Must be. The Bruins just don’t know how to do it the easy way.
They have taken shaky leads into the fourth quarter against Arizona and California and trailed in the final quarter against Oregon and once again Saturday.
They keep managing to prevail. It might be thanks to five Oregon turnovers one week or two scoreless trips inside the five-yard line by California the next. Each game provides more dire situations, more reasons and opportunities to fail.
The various injuries, both nagging and serious, have begun to catch up to them.
Except for one play, when faulty coverage let a wide-open Brian Poli-Dixon haul in a 51-yard touchdown pass from Cade McNown, UCLA had trouble throwing the ball downfield Saturday. The Bruins could have used the big-play speed of Freddie Mitchell, who is sidelined for the season because of a broken leg.
Kicker Chris Sailer has been nursing a strained groin for much of the season, and he isn’t at his best. His career-long field goal was 56 yards, but he missed a 53-yard attempt Saturday and had a 50-yard attempt blocked.
UCLA’s starting tailback, Jermaine Lewis, suffered a leg injury in the first quarter and the Bruins were forced to use freshman DeShaun Foster in the second half. Foster sat out last week’s game because of a knee injury and wore a big brace on his left knee. He also scored the winning touchdown with 8:05 to play. In addition, the Bruins created more problems for themselves.
They were penalized 12 times for 125 yards, including a holding call that nullified a McNown-to-Danny Farmer touchdown pass. The Bruins let Stanford convert 11 of 18 third downs, while converting only four of 12 themselves.
Stanford outplayed and even outhit the Bruins in the first quarter, yet it ended in a 7-7 tie because UCLA made three plays: a blocked punt followed by a 33-yard Keith Brown touchdown run the next play, and a fumble recovery.
The Bruins had to struggle to keep the game tied in the first half, then had to mount a comeback from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter against a team with only one victory this season.
In Stanford’s defense, it just missed beating Arizona State in an overtime loss on Oct. 22. On Saturday, the only difference between the two teams was that UCLA has just enough to turn these type of games into victories.
“It’s just something that each individual player has inside on this team,” cornerback Ryan Roques said. “We have an urgency not to lose.
“I think we can continue all the way down the road. If it’s magical plays or big plays that gives us that win, we’ve got to do it.”
They only need to do it four more times, then they can look for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. As opponents go, they won’t get any easier than Stanford, which was the only team with a losing record left on UCLA’s schedule. It still took every last ounce of effort and karma to get the victory. “Our guys rose to the occasion,” Coach Bob Toledo said.
Does he have any more yeast left in the cupboard? “I gave it my all today,” said Marques Anderson, the weary hero.
When it was over, all he could do was lie down on the field, exhausted and exhilarated, unable to move.
Then he got up off his back.
The Bruins have a way of doing that.
“It was a long game,” Anderson said. “But we came out with the ‘W.’ ”
The Bruins have a way of doing that too.