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They Picked Bad Week to Give Up Thinking

The parched UCLA football faithful stared at it for weeks, crawled toward it for days, this shimmering pool of hope amid six years of desert.

Their new team was rebuilding. Their new coach was succeeding. Their old karma was returning. A bowl bid was waiting.

All of it was coming together Saturday against overmatched Washington State, 62,000 folks showing up to shed their frustrations and joyously leap head-first into ...

More sand.

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This Bruin season may be another mirage, and today the Rose Bowl is coated in the dust to prove it.

On the scoreboard, Washington State 31, UCLA 29, in a game that wasn’t remotely that close.

In the air, the angriest boos since the last days of Bob Toledo.

In the background, a stadium that was half empty in the final minutes.

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In the stands, Ben Olson, a nationally celebrated quarterback recruit who didn’t leave early, and that’s a bad thing.

In the toilet, a bowl game, there being little reason to think UCLA can reach the mandatory six-win mark with its final two games being at Oregon and against USC.

On the hot seat, Karl Dorrell?

Not this season, but certainly next, if he enters that third year with only a 2003 Silicon Valley Classic loss to Fresno State on his postseason resume.

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“We didn’t tackle very well, we didn’t block very well, we were just ineffective on both sides of the ball,” said Dorrell, and, believe it or not, he left something out.

They also didn’t show up between the ears, and that was the scary part.

They looked lost. They acted slow. They behaved carelessly.

A 5-3 team coming off its first shutout in eight years.

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The Holiday Bowl folks in the press box.

Their neighborhood buzzing around them again.

“And we acted like we didn’t care,” said Tom Cable, Bruin offensive coordinator, speaking for his unit, taking the blame. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Scary, and amazing.

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A loss worthy of the ugliest of italics.

Washington State, which had not won a game in six weeks, scored in the first 18 seconds and never trailed.

“We dominated them, we could do what we wanted, and we knew it,” Cougar tackle Calvin Armstrong said.

Washington State, ranked 105th in the nation in rushing offense, ran for 321 yards.

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“They started talking against each other, bickering with each other, and we knew we had them,” Armstrong said.

Somebody named Jerome Harrison, who gained 15 rushing yards a week ago against USC, ran for 247 yards against UCLA.

“We knew where to go; they’ve been suspect on run defense all year long,” Armstrong said with a grin.

Washington State, ranked 62nd in the nation in total defense, held the Bruins to 90 yards in the first half.

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“We didn’t have the right response at the beginning of the football game,” Dorrell said.

Was that response Tab Perry fumbling the opening kickoff, the Cougars recovering, then Harrison breaking three tackles on the first play from scrimmage for 25-yard touchdown run?

Or was it the Bruins’ second play from scrimmage, a wide receiver throwing a ball five yards beyond the reach of a fullback?

The Bruins’ second series ended when quarterback Drew Olson threw the ball to an invisible man after a miscommunication. Their third series ended when he threw where Craig Bragg couldn’t catch it.

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Their fourth series ended when he threw it to Jeremy Bohannon, who happens to play for Washington State.

A couple of minutes later, Harrison ran for a second touchdown, which would have been no special deal except he did it completely untouched, up the middle, from 45 yards.

How does that happen, exactly?

“They decided to bring it, and we brought it too late,” UCLA defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu said.

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They indeed brought it in the second half, outscoring and outplaying the Cougars despite the loss of Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis to injuries.

But it was indeed too late, as even Dorrell admitted in a strange decision that helped change the game.

Late in the third quarter, Dorrell declined a 10-yard, illegal hands penalty against the Cougars that would have pushed them back about 15 yards but allowed them to repeat third down.

The decline allowed the Cougars to remain on the Bruin 14-yard line, from where Graham Siderius kicked a 31-yard field goal to give them a 24-13 lead.

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Why not push the kid out of field-goal range, Coach?

Dorrell said that because Washington State had just missed a 28-yard field goal attempt, he wanted to make them kick one again. Except, it turns out, it was a different kicker who missed the previous attempt.

Dorrell also implied, more compellingly, that he didn’t trust his defense.

“I would have been giving them a third and 17, and they still could have gotten a first down,” he said.

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On third and 17? Think about that.

It was that sort of day, the Bruins ending with a touchdown pass that was intended for Joe Cowan but was snagged, one-handed, out of nowhere, by Manuel White.

And then, the Bruins tried to tie the score with a two-point play designed for Lewis, but he was on the bench, and the ball fell into a scrum at the goal line.

Moments later the new and improved Bruins trudged off the field to loud boos, frustrated waves, now you see them, now you don’t.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For more Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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