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UCLA misses its chance to rise in college football

UCLA misses its chance to rise in college football
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is brought down by Utah's Gionni Paul, left, and Jared Norris. Hundley was sacked 10 times by the Utes during the Bruins' 30-28 loss. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It was a terrific/horrific proposition UCLA faced: Having so many hours to ponder its possible, lofty perch in college football's high chair.

UCLA does not always ponder well, and has had issues with vertigo.

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By sunset, on a brutally hot Saturday, the eighth-ranked Bruins knew four teams in the top 10 had lost.

It could only have been better had crosstown rival USC brain-cramped to Arizona State on a last-second Hail Mary pass.

Wow that too!?

A press box worker in the Rose Bowl actually turned off all television feeds of USC-Arizona State before the start of Utah and UCLA.

"Wait a minute," a writer (me) kindly asked. "Can't we keep one of these monitors on the USC game?"

He looked perplexed at first, then complied.

Minutes later, after Arizona State toppled the Trojans, the "no-cheering-in-the-press-box" rule was seriously violated.

UCLA responded to this rising tide of euphoria by losing.

The final score was 30-28.

Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn had two chances to win it for UCLA, but missed from 55 and 50 yards at the end.

His second chance came after a penalty, but his kick went wide.

UCLA spotted Utah a 14-0 lead, 17-7 at the half and 24-14 after three quarters.

What was the catch-up hurry?

UCLA took its first lead, 28-27, with 4:50 left, on quarterback Brett Hundley's 40-yard scoring strike to Eldridge Massington.

Utah responded with Andy Phillips' field goal of 29 yards.

UCLA must have thought Utah played worse from ahead after the Utes blew a 21-0 lead last week against Washington State.

Hundley, coming off a brilliant game at Arizona State, threw an early pick-six interception to Tevin Carter.

UCLA then got burned on a touchdown catch by Dres Anderson, son of former Bruins' star Flipper.

Utah sacked Hundley 10 times — a number that would make even Oregon blush.

"Obviously there were a lot of opportunities for us," Hundley said. "We didn't get the job done, that's really all that matters."

One benefit of the expanded four-team playoff is that one defeat is not a death knell.

Despite the close loss, UCLA probably will advance to the playoffs by winning the rest of its games.

How a team responds to prosperity, though, is revealing.

UCLA's whimsical weekend dreaming started Thursday when Arizona upset No. 2 Oregon in Eugene.

The domino fall continued Saturday morning when No. 6 Texas A&M fell, 48-31, at Mississippi State, the first of many self-inflicted wounds to come in the Southeastern Conference West.

That was followed by Mississippi's 23-17 win over No. 3 Alabama in Oxford.

"Alabama lost!" a UCLA fan watching TV under a tent said in Rose Bowl parking Lot K around 4 p.m.

"And Oklahoma's losing," he added.

Texas Christian did, in fact, hold on to beat No. 4 Oklahoma.

Stanford also put roses on UCLA's table by losing at Notre Dame.

Victory against a solid Utah team would have left UCLA as the West Coast's highest-ranked poster program.

UCLA would have risen on Sunday as the Pac-12's best positioned team for the four-team playoff.

That prospect seemed unlikely after UCLA nearly lost its opener at Virginia, nearly lost at home to Memphis and nearly lost to Texas in Arlington (thank you, Jerry Neuheisel).

A special season, though, requires spit, talent, luck and serendipity — maybe even a Hail Mary.

UCLA got by Texas without injured quarterback David Ash, and Arizona State without injured quarterback Taylor Kelly.

The Bruins caught a break when the left-arm injury Hundley suffered at Texas was not serious.

Hundley also benefited from a just-in-time bye weekend to get mended and was actually masterful in UCLA's win at Arizona State.

But UCLA did not get past Utah, and we'll see what happens next.

Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham had this to say about the Pac-12:

"It's a meat grinder. You better have depth, you better have playmakers and be stout up front. If you've got a weakness in this conference you're toast."

We know UCLA hasn't always picked up the receiver when destiny calls.

In 1998, a win at Miami in December would have put UCLA in the first Bowl Championship Series title game. UCLA was riding a 20-game winning streak but suffered a swelter-skelter defeat to the Hurricanes.

In 2001, the Bruins jumped to No. 4 after a win over California but then lost to Stanford.

In 2005, they were 8-0 and No. 7 after an overtime win at Stanford but then lost, 52-14, squeaker at Arizona.

In 2007, the Bruins were ranked No. 11 when the plane landed in Salt Lake City.

Final score: Utah 44, UCLA 6.

The Bruins now face an almost must-win home test next week against Oregon, but are catching the Ducks in the midst of an injury crisis on the offensive line.

UCLA has lost six straight to Oregon.

"It's time for UCLA to turn the page and do something different and win these games," Coach Jim Mora said after last year's defeat.

This weekend proved, if nothing else, that no one should get carried away.

The strewn wreckage revealed there are very good teams out there, but not very great teams.

There's a lot of season left and scenarios we have not yet conjured.

You can only guess what might happen next.

"The rankings are the rankings, but they don't matter until the end," Hundley said Saturday night.

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