By the end, when any faint hopes of another miraculous UCLA comeback had been quashed Saturday night and Oregon State had clinched a 48-31 victory over the Bruins, the fans who remained at the Rose Bowl couldn’t muster the energy to boo anymore. And that’s what should worry everyone connected to the Bruins’ football program, because apathy is worse than anger, and because this 1-5 season might not have hit rock bottom even after the Bruins gave up what amounted to three games’ worth of points to the 2-3 Beavers.
Yes, this can get worse, and it very well might. Does anyone in UCLA’s athletic department care enough to realize that?
The fans let their displeasure become known early and often, letting loose some jeers when UCLA fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter. But anyone who cared enough to be part of the announced crowd of 48,532 after two home losses was happy to be sucked back in when the Bruins came back and got to within 10 points three times. The first time was when Joshua Kelly recovered his own fumble and scored early in the third quarter to cut Oregon State’s lead to 27-17, again later in the third quarter when Demetric Felton reached the end zone on a spectacular 75-yard run and Oregon State’s lead became 34-24, and lastly when quarterback Austin Burton’s six-yard run closed the Bruins’ deficit to 41-31 in the fourth quarter.
But the Bruins couldn’t repeat the remarkable rally they staged at Washington State two weeks ago, and Oregon State scored again with 1 minute and 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter to put the game away. “We have to stop them,” coach Chip Kelly said, “and we didn’t do a good enough job of stopping them tonight.”
There’s an understatement.
That final touchdown, a 19-yard run by Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton, sent fans streaming silently toward the exits. There really wasn’t much they could say, though Bruins linebacker Lokeni Toailoa insisted he and his teammates didn’t hear the periodic jeers and boos that had rained down from the stands earlier.
“We don’t listen to anything that’s outside of the building. All we are allowing is ourselves and our teammates and our coaches,” Toailoa said. “So whatever noise is outside is just noise outside. It doesn’t affect us, we’re not listening to it or anything.”
Kelly heard it. And he heard their apathetic silence.
“We have to play better. We understand that. We have to execute and play better. And there is no one more disappointed than we are,” he said when asked about fans’ disappointment. “That’s part of the process, and we have to work through it. When you are a young team, you’re going to make mistakes. But we don’t make excuses for those. How do we teach in those situations, and how do we grow as a group?”
Have they grown as a group, if that’s the measure of their progress and his influence? That’s the real question. Injuries aside — and the Bruins had significant injuries on the defensive line on Saturday — the answer seems to be no, they have not progressed, and there’s not much reason, based on their inadequate recruiting, to think they are on track to improve dramatically.
For now, as Demetric Felton said, “all we can do is just keep on fighting and keep on getting better.” Toailoa says the team is holding onto that, and to one another, as the ground falls out from beneath them.
“Week in, week out, our mind-set is the same. We don’t go, ‘OK, we’re one and whatever we are.’ Whether we’re 1-5 or 5-1, our mind-set is the same,” he said. “On defense, we gotta get the offense off the field, get the ball back, give our offense the ball. Doesn’t matter whether we’re up by a lot, down by a lot, doesn’t matter. Whether we’ve won two games or lost games it doesn’t matter.
“Whether we win, we can’t let the win define us. We lose, we can’t let the loss define us. We have a great group of guys, a bunch of competitors, and this doesn’t define us at all. Nobody’s going to be walking around moping around. That’s just not who we are. It sucks, yeah, losing sucks no matter what it is, but this game doesn’t define us. Our record doesn’t define us. Our mind-set is come in each and every day and get better than we were last week.”
That might not be enough to salvage anything from a season increasingly marked by defeat and by fans’ growing disenchantment.
“I would just say, be patient. We’re working as hard as we can,” Felton said of his message to fans. “Everything is a process, and all we can do is just keep on working every day.”
Late in Saturday’s game they worked in deafening silence.