PASADENA “”mdash; The UCLA football team is a sure thing every week.
That is, the UCLA football team is sure to confuse everybody every week.
A week after pulling off the biggest upset of the college football season thus far, the Bruins nearly lost to what could be the worst team in their conference.
UCLA (3-2, 1-1 Pac-10) decided to step up just in the nick of time to defeat Washington State (1-4, 0-2) 42-28 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
“They really brought the manhood out of us,” junior safety Rahim Moore said after the game.
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel had been warning all week of the dangers of overlooking the Cougars, especially after a season-resurrecting win against then-No. 7 Texas in Austin last weekend.
But despite a potent running attack that racked up 437 yards and a modest starting debut for sophomore quarterback Richard Brehaut, UCLA still needed a late-game resurgence to claim the victory.
Washington State was the clear owner of the game’s momentum until a key sequence early in the fourth quarter, when the Bruins stopped a Cougar drive twice from inside the one-yard line, reclaiming the ball and eventually the lead.
WSU sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel’s apparent rushing touchdown two plays earlier would have broken a 28-28 tie if it had not been called back by a review that determined his knee had touched the ground before the ball reached the endzone, giving UCLA the second chance it needed.
On the next possession, UCLA junior running back Derrick Coleman busted off for 73 yards on a play that set the Bruins up for the go-ahead touchdown. From that point on, order seemed to be restored on the home team’s sideline, and the crowd of more than 62,000 allowed itself to breathe a collective sigh of relief that disaster had been averted.
Still, Neuheisel was not satisfied with the performance as a whole.
“We’re going to obviously have to play better to hang around in the Pac-10 race,” he said.
The UCLA offense relied once again on the powerful tailback tandem of Coleman and redshirt sophomore Johnathan Franklin to carry the majority of the load, and they did not disappoint. The duo combined for 401 yards and four touchdowns.
Injured redshirt sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince, whose sore knee had kept him out of practice all of last week, was benched in favor of Brehaut for his first career start. Brehaut was 12-for-23 on the day, totaling 128 yards passing, an improvement on the air attack that was limited to just 28 yards in the win over Texas.
“We came out throwing, so that they knew that we’re not just a running team,” Brehaut said.
Brehaut was 7-for-11 in the first quarter, completing two long scoring drives that ended in short, rushing touchdowns for Franklin and Coleman. However, the Bruins’ early 14-0 lead may have given them false hope that the game was going to be as easy as the pundits said it would be.
Tuel led the Cougars to a touchdown in their next possession with a nine-yard pass to wide receiver Jeffery Solomon for WSU’s first score of the game. It was not the last for a voracious Cougar passing attack that finished with 311 yards through the air, the most the Bruin defense has given up all season.
“We could have come out with more fire,” junior safety Tony Dye said. “At least from a defensive standpoint, I was very disappointed with our energy.”
On UCLA’s next two possessions, the team had to settle for short field goals by veteran redshirt senior kicker Kai Forbath that made the score 20-7. The Bruins had a first and goal opportunity on the Cougar two-yard line but could not convert.
It was at that point that Washington State seemed to seize the game.
The Cougars ended the half with an impressive drive in which they completed three big pass plays, including an 18-yard catch by receiver Dan Blackledge to bring WSU within a touchdown.
A 50-yard pass completion on the Cougars’ first drive of the second half helped them to score and take the 21-20 lead.
UCLA got the ball back hoping to regain some of its earlier offensive power, but Franklin fumbled the ball for the second time in two games and Washington State recovered in the red zone, poised to score again.
Two pass interference penalties by the Bruin secondary helped the Cougars to punch it in for a rushing touchdown by tailback James Montgomery, and their biggest lead of the contest, 28-20.
But Brehaut and the Bruin offense responded with a 67-yard drive topped off by a Coleman one-yard rushing score. The UCLA quarterback found a leaping junior wide receiver Taylor Embree in the endzone on the two-point conversion to balance the teams’ scores.
“It felt great,” Embree said of the catch. “I think that play really spring-boarded us to the victory.”
The next possession, the first of the final quarter, ended with the Bruins’ tremendous goal-line stand, the defining moment for a defense that was certainly not at its best. The resulting 99-yard drive going the other way proved that UCLA had recovered its intensity, a feature that Neuheisel would praise in the postgame press conference.
“I think the lesson that I’m going to focus on from this game is our ability to respond when things look bleak,” he said.
UCLA closed out the game with two tough defensive stops ending in a WSU missed field goal and a fumble on a sack by Bruin junior linebacker Akeem Ayers. These two failed drives sandwiched another rushing touchdown by Coleman, which would finalize the day’s plentiful scoring.
Rahim Moore, like most of the Bruin players after the game, was somewhat cautious about admiring the win because of the pregame expectations of a win and the sloppy play of the defense. But Moore, like his coach, saw the benefits that this team can gain from a comeback victory.
“I like the fight in us,” Moore said. “Even when we got knocked down, we got up and fought some more.”