The talk in the UCLA locker room after Saturday’s game wasn’t so much about running pass routes or blitzing the quarterback.
It was about pointing fingers.
Mounting losses can do that to a team. And a 34-6 defeat to Oregon State at the Rose Bowl definitely sent the Bruins into damage control mode.
Once again, the defense kept the score close while the offense sputtered. Once again, the game fell apart in the fourth quarter.
Which left Coach Rick Neuheisel giving a different kind of postgame speech, concerned about the potential for a rift between offensive and defensive players.
“It’s a very, very dangerous thing to have happen even though it’s certainly understandable,” he said. “And that’s what I talked to the team about.”
Neuheisel knows something about this kind of imbalance, having coached with the Baltimore Ravens before coming to UCLA.
The players swore they won’t allow dissension. Walking off the field, tailback Kahlil Bell went up to defensive tackle Brigham Harwell.
“The rest of this season will not fall apart,” Bell said later. “We can’t let the rest of this team go in the tank.”
The Bruins now stand at 3-6 overall, 2-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference, and must win their final three games to salvage a .500 record and a bowl invitation. Not that the postseason seems likely, not the way this season has gone.
Still, UCLA came into Saturday’s game expecting improvement after two weeks of practice. Worried about matching the Oregon State offense -- among the Pac-10’s best -- they were hoping for a low-scoring affair.
That meant containing Beavers running back Jacquizz Rodgers, the Pac-10’s leading rusher, and UCLA did a respectable job -- at first.
Though Rodgers found creases to run through, the Bruins managed a 3-3 score at halftime by coming up with big plays on defense.
When Oregon State quarterback Sean Canfield fumbled just short of the end zone, UCLA safety Rahim Moore pounced on the ball.
Soon after, with Oregon State driving past midfield, Moore made a leaping interception at the goal line to defuse another threat.
“I think early in the game we played well,” UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter said.
But the UCLA offense is like an unreliable car -- sometimes it runs just fine, other times it breaks down and sits by the side of the road.
The Bruins came out with a hint of a running game, Bell gaining 40 yards in the first quarter.
It didn’t last. UCLA continually lost the battle at the line of scrimmage and ended up with a meager 48 yards on the ground.
Playing behind that struggling line, quarterback Kevin Craft made poor choices. The junior completed only 20 of 42 passes for 189 yards and had two interceptions.
The game turned in the third quarter, the Bruins’ offense pinned against its goal line and unable to move. A short punt left Oregon State with a short field and Canfield, subbing for an injured Lyle Moevao, threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Stroughter for a 10-3 lead.
If the defense had a weakness Saturday, it was the occasional long pass. On Oregon State’s next possession, Canfield hit Stroughter for 44 yards and Rodgers scored from a yard out.
The score was 17-3 and the crowd of 83,478 would soon head for the parking lot.
“We were not protecting up front, we were not making good decisions,” offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. “It’s tough to deal with.”
UCLA mustered a spasm of offense to kick another field goal, but it was too little, too late.
Both of Craft’s interceptions came in the fourth quarter, both converted into Oregon State touchdowns. Another shaky UCLA punt led to a field goal for the Beavers, now heated up offensively.
Canfield passed for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Rodgers found more and more room, finishing with 144 yards in 31 carries.
All of which got the Beavers -- in the thick of the conference race at 6-3, 5-1 -- imagining a return to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
“That’s something that was in the back of everyone’s mind,” Canfield said.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are left to regroup for next weekend’s visit to Washington, where the Huskies are winless and hope flickers. It’s a matter of keeping the team together, Harwell said.
“Can’t be mad at the offense,” he said. “Can’t be mad at anybody.”