PASADENA -- Two of UCLA's most beleaguered entities saved UCLA's season on Saturday night.
Quarterback Kevin Prince, so maligned that the Rose Bowl crowd booed him as he came on the field to relieve injured Richard Brehaut against Washington State, threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns and completed a crucial 58-yarder to set up the game-winner as the Bruins defeated the Cougars, 28-25, to keep UCLA afloat for now.
And the UCLA defense, the scapegoat for the Bruins' lackluster start this season because of its inability to stop opponents to anyone's satisfaction came up with a couple of key stops, including Andrew Abbott's interception that sealed the victory when a loss would have sent the season spiraling down the drain.
"It's huge," Abbott said. "We've been a little down and out, but this is the kind of thing that could springboard our whole season and it could springboard our whole program. We're not there yet. We still have some work to do and we need to learn from this and keep getting better."
Still UCLA's defense had been looking for a sign that things were turning, and the Bruins may have gotten just that Saturday night. They got eight tackles for a loss after getting just 17 in the first five games this season and had two sacks after getting only three in the first five games.
And Abbott's interception with 2:01 left came on a third and five. UCLA has had trouble all season on third down, entering the game No. 119 out of 120 in third-down conversion defense. The Bruins allowed Washington State to convert 11 of 20, but got the stop when it counted most.
"We were still having trouble on third down, but we kept fighting and we hung in there and got a turnover when we needed to," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "That was big. We got off twice in a row on third down when we needed to so that’s a plus to do that at the end of the game. I think that shows something about how our guys aren't giving up on getting this fixed."
For Prince, it was all about getting his confidence fixed. He was booed off the field last time he played a game after throwing three first-quarter interceptions against Texas. He threw another interception at the end of the first half Saturday but rebounded by completing four of four passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"I don’t want anything like that Texas game to ever happen again, so it’s nice to be able to bounce back and put that aside and get a win," Prince said. "I was kind of down after the Texas game and coach [Rick] Neuheisel sat me down after that game and told me he’d been through the same thing, thrown four interceptions and got benched. He’s been there and he told me not to get too down because I’d get another shot."
It's a story of perseverance and dedication, Neuheisel said, and it shows Prince's character. Prince lost his starting job because of the Texas game and easily could have slinked off into a corner and wallowed, but Prince stayed focused and awaited his shot at redemption. And because he did, the Bruins are now 2-1 in the Pac-12 and very much in the thick of the South division title race.
"A guy that had been demoted and sent to the gallows of quarterback life ... and you keep your attitude," Neuheisel said. "We had conversations about how he needed to, but it’s easier to say than to do and I just am thrilled for him to be able to step into that situation and respond the way that he did."
A loss in this game would have put UCLA at 2-4 for the season and needing to win four of the last six just to be bowl eligible and save Neuheisel's job. Instead, the Bruins are 3-3 and a game behind first-place Arizona State in the South division race, tied with USC.
And for that, the Bruins and Neuheisel can thank Prince. And the defense that had let them down so often this season.