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Picking Themselves Up

They came back.

That’s how we’ll define this team that won 10 games, stumbled through two humiliating defeats, had a defense that gave up ground by the acreage, not yardage, and an offense that could pull off escapes Indiana Jones would call improbable.

They came back.

Back from tags of underachieving. Back from fourth-quarter deficits. Back from bad losses. And, in their final time together, back from a 22-0 deficit in the Sun Bowl.

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How did UCLA pull off a 50-38 victory over Northwestern Friday?

They stayed true to form. They came back.

“The way we responded, that’s how this team is,” quarterback Drew Olson said. “To come back from our largest deficit just showed the character on this team. This is what we thought of ourselves all along. It showed up in the last game.”

If this reflected the same traits of this season’s team it also showed a new characteristic for Coach Karl Dorrell. For a change his team didn’t slide all the way through December. For the first time in his three years as the main man, he won a bowl game.

He took this for what it was, a significant first step, far from an arrival. He knows this doesn’t erase that 66-19 pounding USC put on the Bruins their previous time on the field, but it at least averts a skid. He talked about getting to “a level that we probably weren’t ready to play at this year, but we’ll be ready to play at next year.”

I definitely heard where he’s coming from when he said Thursday, “I don’t think I will ever reach the stage where I don’t have to prove myself because of who I am.... Let’s be real, there’s a minority issue here, and there is a great deal of prejudice out there.”

Perhaps other people can dismiss it, try to pretend race never comes into play. That’s a luxury African Americans don’t have. Not as long as the numbers are so ridiculously out of whack. Dorrell was one of only three African American head coaches among 117 NCAA Division I-A football teams entering this season.

Pete Carroll gets to be Pete Carroll. His successes and failures belong to him alone. Karl Dorrell has to be Karl Dorrell, plus every African American coach who hopes to follow his footsteps. He knows it isn’t fair, but future employment opportunities for African American coaches will depend on how Dorrell, Tyrone Willingham, Sylvester Croom and new hires Turner Gill and Ron Prince fare.

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And how do we judge Dorrell? Northwestern Coach Randy Walker offered this endorsement: “Karl’s doing a great job at UCLA. I really enjoyed getting to meet him this week. He’s a special person.... I know that program’s going in the right direction.”

Then again, Walker also said the Sun Bowl people were “special” and his senior players were “special.”

But any 10-2 record looks good. It will look good long after the memories of how close some of those games were and how easily the record could have been 6-6.

It’s alarming that the team came out so slowly after long layoffs for this game and the USC game. Olson blamed rust for his bad starts in both games, and maybe that’s his fault, not the coach’s.

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Friday, Olson threw three interceptions in the first quarter. Two of them were returned for touchdowns and another resulted in a 36-yard touchdown drive.

But that masked what UCLA did have going for it: a sound defensive game plan that kept a handle on an explosive Northwestern offense through the first three quarters.

They were led by linebacker Spencer Havner, who played brilliantly in his final game, making his presence known to Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez by pressuring him in the backfield and also intercepting a pass.

“We got down big, I’m thinking, I’ve got to do something,” Havner said. “I kept telling the guys, ‘Let’s take it over.’ ”

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Meanwhile, the offense finally realized what anyone who had watched Northwestern could have told them. You can run on the Wildcats. You can throw deep on the Wildcats.

And so the second quarter featured two all-rushing touchdown drives and one quick-strike 58-yard pass scoring drive.

They did this despite the temporary absence of Maurice Drew, who went to the locker room because of a shoulder injury, clearing the way for career rushing days by Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell.

Then there were the “hidden elements.” Northwestern had an extra point blocked, another one hit the upright and had a field-goal attempt blocked. The well-deserved lack of confidence in the kicker caused the Wildcats to forgo a field goal and run a play when a UCLA penalty gave Northwestern the ball on the four-yard line on the final play of the first half. Basanez’s pass was broken up and UCLA went to halftime with a 29-22 lead.

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The bottom line was this team never abandoned belief. Not after a shocking loss at Arizona wrecked any Pacific 10 Conference or national championship hopes. (They bounced back by beating Arizona State the next game). Not after the USC loss. (See Friday’s final score).

His players and team improved, especially Olson, who bounced back to throw three touchdown passes Friday, just as he came back from a disappointing career to have a memorable senior season.

“It really puts an exclamation point on what we did this year, how we were trying to bring back this program and bring respect back to this program,” Olson said of the victory.

“The only thing we wanted to do was bring this program back, I definitely think it’s on its way, if not there.”

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Well, not yet. But heading there, thanks to a 2005 team that never abandoned hope, that kept coming back.

As a result, Dorrell left the field with a football tucked under his arm. This one won’t be part of any comeback.

“This one,” Dorrell said, “is coming home with me.”

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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