After a game that had a now-or-never feeling for UCLA's bowl game ambitions, the Bruins are staring at the "never" part of that equation.
After a game in which Coach Jim Mora had wanted to give his players hope and "lead them out of the woods," the Bruins are trapped more deeply in a forest of defeats and disappointment.
Even their cornerstone defense, which had kept them competitive after quarterback Josh Rosen suffered a shoulder injury and their running game remained embarrassingly invisible, was shredded Saturday in their 52-45 loss to Utah at the Rose Bowl, their third consecutive loss and fourth in the last five games.
Utah running back Joe Williams, who retired earlier this season and was sitting in the stands until he was persuaded to return to help an injury-plagued lineup, was a one-man wrecking crew against the Bruins (3-5, 1-4 in Pacific 12 play) with 332 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Williams, a senior at Utah (7-1, 4-1) alone accounted for more than seven times the Bruins' 46 rushing yards.
The Bruins might have wished that Williams had stayed retired, but wishing will get them nowhere. Then again, their running game isn't getting them anywhere, either. They dropped any pretense of trying to establish a running game Saturday with only 16 rushing attempts — six by quarterback Mike Fafaul — for that not-so-grand total of 46 yards.
For offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, who described himself as an old-school running backs coach, ignoring the running game goes against his instincts even though it's clearly the Bruins' best chance to stay in games. Asked whether it pains or frustrates him to have to build around the running game instead of upon it, he smiled. "I'll leave it at that. You answered it for me," he said.
Fifth-year senior Fafaul set school records for passing attempts (70) and completions (40) while racking up 464 yards and five touchdowns — and throwing four interceptions. But the outcome was as distastefully familiar for the Bruins as it has been the past few weeks.
"No excuses. The offense put up 45 points today — that should be enough for us to win the game. We gave them 52 points. That's bad," linebacker Takkarist McKinley said. "The offense did their part. We've just got to find a way to not give up so many points.
"That's honestly a damned shame."
It was what they deserved, in truth. The hurry-up offense they instituted Saturday did nothing but hasten the end of their bowl hopes and their season. Dropped passes undermined them again, as did those four interceptions thrown by Fafaul. Starting the game with a kickoff returned for a touchdown, by Cory Butler-Byrd, set an ominous tone that wasn't lightened much.
But according to Fafaul, the Bruins haven't conceded anything.
"We're just going to work every single day as hard as we can and that's what I love about this team," he said. "We just fight every day. We're experiencing some adversity right now, but I think we got a resilient bunch and I think we're going to respond well against Colorado."
Mora considers it a mixed blessing that UCLA has a bye week and doesn't play again until Nov. 3, at Boulder, Colo. He'd like a chance to compete sooner and erase the memory of this loss, but he and the coaching staff need every available moment to regroup and re-analyze how they can fix a season that is sliding off the rails.
"The key thing for those young men is that they hang together, support each other and continue to search for answers and come out and work hard, absorb the disappointment but not let it affect them going forward, so that's what we'll continue to talk about," Mora said.
"Sometimes there are tough life lessons to be learned in athletic competition and hopefully we can learn those lessons and they'll apply them at some point down the road in their life and it will help them, but right now it's very, very painful for all of us. That's all I really have to say."
That's all that really needs to be said, other than their hopes of a successful season look more like never than now.