Toledo’s Decisions Show That in Paus He Doesn’t Trust
Staring down their worst fears, the guys in fading blue and chipped gold were fearless.
All but one.
Required to wrestle seventh-ranked Oregon while wearing restraints Saturday, members of UCLA football team were daring and defiant.
All but one.
The main one.
As the shadows crept over an inspirational Rose Bowl afternoon, seemingly the only one not believing in miracles was the one responsible for creating them.
That would be Bob Toledo.
During two critical moments of Saturday’s 21-20 loss, the demonstrative soul of the Bruin program strangely kept his hands in his pockets.
Early in the fourth quarter, when he could have gone for a two-point conversion to give his team a seven-point lead, he did not.
Late in the fourth quarter, when he could have passed to get within easier field goal range, he did not.
All of which meant, instead of preparing for a relatively easy field goal attempt above the safety net of an overtime, Chris Griffith was forced into a last-second, all-or-nothing shot from 50 yards.
Not once in his three-year career has he made a 50-yarder. He had never even attempted a 50-yarder.
“He’s made them before,” Toledo said. “In practice.”
The kick was wide and short.
The boos were long and harsh.
The questions were brief and pointed.
The head coach was pale.
“It hurts,” Toledo said, shaking his head. “We gave them too many plays, and we didn’t make enough plays.”
In the end, Toledo didn’t allow them to make enough plays.
The coach who has never been afraid to try anything suddenly became afraid to try everything.
Usually in this program, it’s the players who are tentative in following the lead of their lateral-to-the-kitchen-sink boss.
This time, the situation was reversed.
Cory Paus was splendid despite a sore thumb. Brian Poli-Dixon was terrific coming back from a separated shoulder. The tough offensive line didn’t even notice that DeShaun Foster had been suspended for his four-wheel foolishness, and knocked open holes worth 146 team rushing yards.
The Bruins were moments from restoring faith in a former national championship contender that had lost its way.
If only their coach had trusted them. Specifically, if only he had trusted quarterback Paus.
That was Saturday’s unspoken story, a season-long story, a never-ending story unless something changes between now and Paus’ senior season next fall.
The former quarterback does not trust his starting quarterback in crunch time.
When running back DeShaun Foster is available, that distrust is hidden in handoffs.
But with Foster suspended Saturday for NCAA violations, that distrust had nowhere to hide.
Begin at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Bruins scored on Manuel White’s one-yard run to take a 19-14 lead, making it obvious they would go for two points to made it a seven-point edge.
Yet Toledo ordered the one-point kick, which ensured that an Oregon touchdown and routine extra point would beat them.
Which is exactly what happened.
It is a decision not second-guessed, but first-guessed, before the play, from press box to sidelines.
“I thought we would go for two,” Poli-Dixon said.
“I was ready to go for it,” Paus said.
“Too early,” Toledo said.
If Foster were playing, would it have been too early? If Toledo thought his quarterback could make the conversion, would it have been too early?
Fast-forward to the end of the fourth quarter, when the Bruins were driving while trailing 21-20.
Paus completed consecutive passes worth 27 yards, moving the Bruins to the Oregon 48-yard line.
At that point, Paus had completed 14 of 21 passes for a season-high 321 yards in his best game of the fall.
But of the Bruins’ final six plays before the game-winning field goal attempt, Paus attempted only one more throw.
Instead, Toledo gave the ball five times to backup running back Akil Harris.
He gained 15 total yards. The Bruins move to the Oregon 33-yard line, setting up the unlikely field goal attempt.
“At the end, after the interception, I didn’t feel like we wanted to throw on that last drive,” Toledo said. “We had driven the ball pretty well to that point and I didn’t want to make a bad play.”
Oh yeah, the interception. On the Bruins’ previous drive, Paus tried to force a ball over the middle and it was picked off by Oregon’s Steve Smith. It was Paus’ second interception of the game.
And, no doubt, Toledo was thinking about the last three possessions of last week’s loss at Washington State, when Paus threw three interceptions to the same guy.
And, yes, Paus had been earlier criticized in this column for being the Bruins’ biggest obstacle to a national championship.
But Saturday was different. Paus was different. He was throwing better passes, making better decisions. It was as if, with Foster gone, Paus understood this could finally be his moment, and he embraced it.
But his coach still did not embrace him.
Paus, as usual, would not second-guess or criticize his boss.
When asked about being handcuffed in the last series, he shrugged and said, “I threw the ball fairly well, threw it well enough to get us down there.”
When asked about whether he thought Toledo had lost confidence in him, he shrugged again.
“You’ll just have to ask him that,” he said.
No need. To 78,330 fans Saturday, the answer was clear.
By next season, Toledo either needs to find new faith in his quarterback, or a new quarterback.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org