This one stung.
Blowout losses to Stanford, California and Oregon may have been more embarrassing, but UCLA’s 29-21 loss to Arizona Saturday cut deep into the hearts of the Bruins and their fans.
In those other losses, the Bruins fell behind early and showed no signs they had the tools to come back. This time they tantalized and teased with a suddenly dynamic passing game that offered hope and belief.
In those other losses, the Bruins couldn’t stop offenses led by some of the best individual players in the Pac-10 Conference. This time they faced a backup quarterback and a couple of no-name running backs and literally let them slip away.
“It hurts a little more,” safety Tony Dye said.
The Bruins passing game came to life Saturday, rejuvenating a team that fell behind 19-7 at halftime. Quarterback Richard Brehaut found Randall Carroll streaking downfield for a 68-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter to make the score 19-14.
Arizona went up 26-14, but Brehaut connected with Josh Smith on a flea-flicker for a 49-yard strike that made it 26-21 early in the fourth quarter. Those were UCLA’s two longest pass plays of the year and seemed to inject energy into an offense that had become stagnant the last two games.
But there were no more big plays left. UCLA gained only 18 yards in its next three possessions, then fumbled after gaining 20 yards on its last possession.
Still, if there is a moral victory to be won here, it’s that the Bruins did open up the offense and take some shots down field. They hadn’t done that yet this season, save for a desperation drive in the season opener against Kansas State, and the offense they showed Saturday could be a precursor of things to come.
“That’s what’s got to be the game plan from now on,” Smith said. “We stuck with a really good team. We have the athletes to do it and really most of the battle is believing in and buying into it and we showed a lot of flashes of guys coming together and doing that today.’
But no matter how well the offense plays, it’s going to need more help from a defense that missed several tackles that helped extend Arizona touchdown drives. The Bruins had Arizona quarterback Mike Scott stopped for a loss or little gain several times, only to have him slip a tackle and make a big play. Two Arizona touchdowns were the direct result of such plays.
“You need to get them to the ground when you’re tackling,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “You can’t just get an arm on them and let them spin out and make a play.”
Neuheisel said he would like to have his team work more on tackling in practice, but a rash of injuries have thinned the Bruins depth charts and Neuheisel doesn’t want to risk further injury.
“We just don’t have guys,” he said. “So we have to practice tackling in other ways. But we’re going to figure out how to do it better. No question about it.”
They are also going to have to figure out how to keep getting off big plays on offense. Opponents have clearly figured out how to stop UCLA’s rushing attack. The Bruins have averaged only 76 yards rushing the last three games after averaging 322 in the three before that.
“We were the underdogs. We didn’t have anything to lose, so we took some shots,” offensive lineman Micah Kia said. “It was actually refreshing to take some shots.”
But it was also painful that the Bruins couldn’t connect on just one more.