With a victory over Washington State on Saturday, UCLA would have become bowl eligible and kept alive hopes of playing in the Holiday Bowl, which had representatives watching from the Rose Bowl press box.
But instead of putting together a winning performance to show their worthiness, the Bruins self-destructed in a hurry and lost to the Cougars, 31-29, in front of 62,251.
UCLA fell behind early, thanks to Tab Perry’s fumble on the opening kickoff, and trailed by as many as 15 points before making a late rally. The Bruins, who had lost running back Maurice Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis to injuries earlier in the game, had a chance to tie the score with 42 seconds to play, but Drew Olson’s two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.
Tom Cable, offensive coordinator, took the blame for UCLA’s sluggish start with the ball, but he could have been speaking for the entire team when he said: “There’s no explanation for the lack of effort and lack of focus....
“In all fairness to the players, I think that it’s a bigger issue. We have to figure out why in the heck we didn’t show up to play a game that clinches a bowl game. I don’t understand that.”
Coach Karl Dorrell said the Bruins (5-4 and 3-3 in the Pacific 10 Conference) did not take Washington State (4-5, 2-4) lightly, but they played that way most of the afternoon.
The Cougars pounded UCLA behind former Pasadena City College running back Jerome Harrison, who rushed for 247 yards and three touchdowns as Washington State ended a four-game losing streak.
Before Saturday, Harrison’s personal best had been 117 yards, and he was coming off a dismal 15 yards in 11 carries against USC. He eclipsed his own mark by the middle of the second quarter as he gave UCLA’s slow-reacting defense fits all game with his quickness.
Many times, the Bruins had the correct defense called to stop Harrison and often had defenders in position to make a tackle, but they failed to bring him down.
“I should have made a lot of those plays when he got outside,” junior safety Jarrad Page said. “I kept coming down into the coverage late and didn’t give myself a chance to get outside to make a play. I have to be better than that.”
To defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, who coached from the press box for the second week in a row, the problem was with the entire defense.
“We knew Washington State had a good running attack and we know that’s always been our weakness,” Kerr said. “We’ve been trying to shore it up and thought we got better last week [in a 21-0 victory over Stanford].... It really came down to a lot of missed tackles.”
The Bruins dug a hole for themselves in the game’s first 18 seconds when one play after Perry’s fumble, Harrison ran 25 yards to give Washington State a 7-0 lead.
“It was a real momentum killer with me fumbling,” said Perry, who bounced back with four catches for 80 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. “That gave them a confidence boost and we struggled to get on track.”
UCLA’s defense tied the score, 7-7, when tackle C.J. Niusulu forced Harrison into a fumble, which was recovered by freshman end Brigham Harwell in the end zone.
Washington State answered later in the quarter when Harrison broke free on an electrifying 45-yard touchdown run.
In the second quarter, the Cougars stretched their lead to 21-7 with a 13-play, 90-yard scoring drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Alex Brink to Jason Hill.
“In the first half, we didn’t tackle well, we didn’t block well,” Dorrell said about the Bruins, who trailed, 21-10, and were outgained 247 yards to 90 over the first two quarters.
“There were a lot of things we didn’t do well. We were just ineffective on both sides of the ball.”
UCLA moved the football with more success in the second half, but the Bruins had trouble scoring touchdowns. Twice, UCLA drove into Washington State territory in the third quarter but had to settle for two Justin Medlock field goals of 47 yards each.
With the Bruins trailing, 24-16, late in the quarter, the defense gave up a backbreaking play when Hill caught a short slant pass and turned it into a 56-yard gain. That set up Harrison’s third touchdown when he scored on a 10-yard run 12 seconds into the fourth quarter to put the Cougars ahead, 31-16.
That’s when Olson and UCLA’s passing game began to show some spark. The Bruins needed only three plays to drive 69 yards, capped by Perry’s touchdown catch to cut their deficit to 31-23.
After the teams exchanged five consecutive punts, UCLA had the ball on its 46 with 2 minutes 33 seconds remaining.
Behind Olson’s passing and running, the Bruins drove down the field and scored on a spectacular one-handed catch by Manuel White to cut Washington State’s lead to two points with 42 seconds left.
On UCLA’s final offensive play, Olson rolled right, but pressure by linebacker Scott Davis forced him to throw an incomplete pass near the goal line.
“This is just a huge loss and it’s frustrating as heck,” said Olson, who completed 18 of 38 passes for 201 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. “I don’t know what else to say.”
The scoreboard said enough.