Had the Bruins stolen the Oregon State game, the outlook for the rest of the year would've brightened considerably. Some kind of momentum, some kind of respectability may still be possible – depending, of course, on actual wins and a much more consistent quality of play. But a victory in Corvallis would've made it much easier to believe, would've elevated prospects somewhere above mere hope.
As in Tucson, the Bruins again got the breaks. They recovered all four of their own fumbles and were the beneficiary of the biggest break of the game:
Down eight with about four and a half minutes to play, Rick Neuheisel chose punting to win. Oddly enough, it almost worked! The Beavers, incredibly, were caught with 12 men on the field, and it was the Bruins who wound up sitting pretty at midfield. (If not for such a bonehead move, OSU, with 4:15 left and UCLA down to one timeout, would've needed only a first down, maybe two, to ice things. Even had OSU had been forced to punt, Kevin Prince would've had to drive the team nearly the length of the field.) On the very next play, Prince hooked up with Nelson Rosario on a beautifully thrown 45-yard pass to the OSU 4-yard line. Bruins score… then another two pointer. Game on.
Even though we witnessed a kind of offensive awakening in those last ten minutes, you couldn't shake the feeling something would still go wrong. Sure enough, Alterraun Verner drops a possible game-winning pick, then Chuck Bullough's defense can't even slow down, let alone stop, OSU's game winning drive.
Seventy-three yards, seven plays, eighty-some seconds. The Beavers offense may as well have been going against their scout team (or practicing a dummy drill). When it wasn't missed tackles and failure to get off blocks, it was that old Bruin bug-a-boo, over-pursuit. Appropriately enough, it was a 17-yard, misdirection reverse that finished off the drive. Nobody even touched James Rodgers ‘til he was diving into the endzone. (Who'd have thought they would go to a Rodgers?) Neuheisel had been seen desperately trying to fire up his troops in the ultimately forlorn hope of making it to overtime. But it was his DC's schemes and personnel that was getting abused on the field. In football, all the heart and emotion in the world is useless against a better plan. At winning time, the Bruin D folded like a wet coffee filter.
So, how to explain the big offensive turnaround? Up until that ten minute mark, Prince had gone something like 13 of 20 for about 125 yards. Modest numbers, indeed. From then on, he threw for about 200 yards. And OSU never helped him out by going into any kind of slack "prevent," which they might have done if Mike Riley had successfully gone for the TD and a 20-point lead instead of settling for a field goal and the 16-point lead. (Neuheisel's decision to kick the short field goal, down 16-0 with just under ten minutes left in the third quarter, also with a long yard to make, and with his O line chomping at the bit for the challenge, wasn't quite as easy to swallow.)
In any case, the Bruin comeback to tie the game was well earned. But with two minutes still on the clock and Sean Canfield and the Rodgers brothers on the field… oh well. In the end it was that old Jim Healy saying: Bad teams will find a way to lose.
At least some things now appear to be clear:
1) Prince has definitely won the quarterback job, and we're not likely to see any more unsatisfying (and unfair) Richard Brehaut cameos. Surprisingly enough, Brehaut seems to be handling it like a champ: "[Prince] was doing everything he could to help the team win. That's the most important thing right now." If it's okay with Brehaut, who am I to quibble?
2) Embree and Rosario, as much as possible, need to be on the field together until the games are decided.
3) If he can practice, Aaron Hester badly needs to replace the reedy Sheldon Price. In retrospect (call it second-guessing, if you like), it may have been a better idea to have replaced Hester with Tony Dye, while sliding Glen Love into Dye's old spot.
4) Johnathan Franklin needs more carries; Milton Knox needs at least some carries.
5) Neuheisel may need to, uh… perhaps encourage his DC to start calling a more aggressive, less predictable game with a view to putting quarterbacks on the ground or at least getting their minds right; these guys have become way too comfortable in the pocket. He may also want his DC to contest the line of scrimmage a bit more forcefully. To put it bluntly, what Bullough's doing isn't working. Will Rick do it? Judging from his recent press conferences, which are getting less helpful and more evasive by the week, I wouldn't bet on it.
What's left to look forward to the rest of the season? A better passing game for starters. Prince will no longer be looking over his shoulder these last four games (if in fact that was ever a problem for him before). It's also by no means certain that Prince has "found himself." Quite a lot of his passing yards have come on fades, which require extraordinary plays by his receivers. When he starts putting up good numbers in consecutive games, especially vs. weak sisters like Washington, WSU and ASU, is when we can safely say UCLA has lost its post-Cade, quarterback blues. (If not, bring on Brehaut next year, maybe even Brett Nottingham.) Presumably, Chow/Neuheisel will now demonstrate some confidence in Prince's abilities to move the team, not turn the ball over in the red zone, and put up sixes instead of threes. And not wait until desperation time.
I never like to think of SC in relation to the Bruins until I absolutely have to, i.e., the week of the Biggest Game (as it used to be known but isn't anymore). Now that we know SC is human, and that Pete Carroll, though a very good defensive coach, is no "genius" (this is a bad year for geniuses), it may perhaps not be unthinkable to imagine making the Trojans sweat, taking them into the fourth quarter, even at the Coliseum... with, dare we say, a Forbath shot at a win. Which is not to say the Bruins might not get blown out again.
SC has always been heavily into mythologizing itself, and Pete has to be the greatest "mythologizer" of them all: For Pete, defeat is never a possibility, at least at the hands of an opponent. In Pete's world, only USC can "beat SC." But after The Passion of Pete, in Eugene, not even a knob-headed, "prose poet" like Bill Plaschke can believe the Trojans are anything special this year.
So, the Bruin objective for November is to win the next three… and with some style, please. Then put a little tension into November 28th. It may be a long-shot, and maybe that 4th quarter awakening was only one more Bruin mirage. If so, we'll all just have to wait ‘til next year… again. You know how to do that, right?