CORVALLIS, Ore.--It might have been the victory that UCLA needed to save the ship from sinking, or it might have been just another Pac-12 road win against a team that will end the season with double-digits in losses.
UCLA defeated Oregon State, 27-19, Saturday at Reser Stadium, in a victory that the Bruins had to have if they were to hold out any hope of a decent season, but a victory that still left you wondering if a decent season is, in fact, within reach.
On one hand, the Bruins went into a hostile environment and made some crucial stands to win their conference opener for the first time since 2007. On the other hand, it was a close game against a team that three weeks ago lost to Sacramento State, a football championship subdivision team, on the same field.
The Bruins made great strides in areas such as making big plays on offense and coming up with crucial stops on defense, but the big plays were few and far between and the defense still bent a little too much.
UCLA showed great promise in racing to a 21-3 lead, but also demonstrated a lack of a killer instinct against a winless team, letting the Beavers to get to within 21-19 and needing to stop a two-point conversion in order to prevent Oregon State from erasing that 18-point deficit.
"It may not have been pretty to a casual observer, but to a guy who is watching these guys fight and learn how to win, especially on the road, it was a great turning the page moment," coach Rick Neuheisel said.
True, no matter how ugly, this had to be considered a step forward for the Bruins. Two weeks ago, they probably lose this game and in that sense the Bruins might very well have turned a corner. Learning how to withstand a challenge by a team as desperate for a win as UCLA is part of the growing process.
It could very well be that UCLA's defense, in stopping two fourth-down conversion attempts as well as the potential game-tying two-point conversion, grew up a little bit and began to discover some of the identity it's been lacking to this point in the season.
But the Bruins also let Oregon State convert a third and six, gave up a 31-yard pass on third 11 and gave up a 12-yard pass on third and 12. Oregon State converted eight of 16 third downs, but only four of 11 after the first quarter.
"We got a little soft at time in coverage and third downs weren't good early for us, but we kept fighting and grinding and got the stops when we needed to," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "We definitely made some strides today. Slowly but surely we are turning into the kind of defense we think we can be."
The Bruins gave up a season-low 88 yards rushing, including only 10 in the first half, which should build confidence. But the fact remains that Oregon State's top running back didn't play in the game because of an injury and the Beavers quarterback was making his first career start.
"We got better as the game went on," linebacker Patrick Larimore said. "That's huge for us and our momentum and our confidence. We can build on things like stopping them on fourth down."
On offense, it was also a mixed bag. The Bruins came out clearly trying to establish the run and ended up rushing for 211 yards--the third time in four games they have eclipsed the 200-yard mark. But after getting some early big plays in the passing game, including a 62-yard pass to Josh Smith and a 22-yard touchdown to Taylor Embree, quarterback Richard Brehaut began misfiring on deep balls and the Bruins had to revert back to the grinding run game.
"We had big-play opportunities where they kind of happened the way we wanted them to, but we didn’t capitalize," offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said.
And it's precisely those inabilities to capitalize that leave you wondering just exactly what this victory means. It seemed as if UCLA should have won this game in a rout, but Oregon State drove to the UCLA 22 with just over two minutes remaining before Sheldon Price knocked away a fourth-down pass to seal the victory.
We probably won't know exactly what this means for several weeks. UCLA has Stanford next week and nobody really expects the Bruins to upset the Cardinal, but we do know this: UCLA is 1-0 in conference and has a winning conference record for the first time at any point of any season since Neuheisel took over as coach.
It is only the third conference road win in Neuheisel's tenure. The other two were against Washington in 2008 (the Huskies finished that season 0-12) and against Washington State in 2009 (the Cougars finished 1-11 that season).
So it could be a watershed moment that gets the maligned Bruins and their head coach rolling in the right direction. Or, it could be just another road win against another bad conference team that seems headed for a dismal season.
Even Neuheisel was unsure of what the victory meant other than it was a victory and that is better than a loss.
"To go on the road and win, especially as the game’s fortunes changed and not give in to that, hopefully that’s something that as we look back will be a signature moment," Neuheisel said. "You can’t downplay how important it is to taste victory. If you keep pounding away and there is no recognizable result from it, it becomes hard. Hopefully we’ll capitalize.
"But we certainly can’t go back to a place where we think we’ve arrived. We’ve got a long way to go before we can call ourselves a good football team."