After watching the UCLA Bruins and the Washington Huskies tangle at the Rose Bowl, there is one word that sums up the Bruins and their effort: Guts.
How else can you describe a team that committed five turnovers—three fumbles (one by Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for a pathetic four yards, and another on a kickoff) and two interceptions—that led to 13 Husky points, and still come up with a hard fought 24-23 victory over a determined Washington team, ending their five game losing streak as well as earning their first Pac-10 conference win?
This contest was what I called an "elimination game," meaning that with both teams coming in with a 3-5 overall record, the loser's hopes for a post-season bowl game would be pretty much over.
For much of the game, the Bruins were beating themselves.
Those five turnovers, plus some costly personal fouls by linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive tackle Brian Price, were a factor in UCLA trailing the Huskies 23-14 early in the second half.
As the battle wore on, however, it was clear that the Bruins' effort was there. Everyone could see that they were trying their hardest, but, as my little league baseball coach once told me when I was a struggling as a kid ballplayer, they were trying too hard.
The mistakes notwithstanding, UCLA's offense continued to progress, gaining a total of 455 yards and doing a good job moving the ball.
Kevin Prince also continued his improvement, throwing for 212 yards on 13-of-17 passing with a touchdown to Cory Harkey in the first quarter before being knocked out with a concussion by Washington linebacker Donald Butler, who speared Prince's head with his helmet in what was widely thought of by the crowd of 72,924 as a dirty play.
Kevin Craft came on in relief in the third quarter and immediately made an impact, throwing a 29 yard touchdown strike to Terrance Austin, who made a juggling, Sports Center-highlight catch in the end zone to cut the Husky lead to 23-21.
The much-maligned Craft ended up going 10-of-14 with 159 yards in the air in what was certainly one of his best efforts as a Bruin, if not the best.
Jake Locker's thigh bruise didn't seem to affect him, as he threw for 235 yards for the Huskies with two scores, one of them a 34 yard strike to Jermaine Kearse. Chris Polk continued the streak of UCLA's run defense giving up 100-yard days, as he rushed for 132 yards on only 15 carries.
Despite all of that, and in addition to overcoming the fumbles and the picks, the Bruin defense came up huge when it counted the most.
With UCLA up by a point, thanks to a 27-yard field goal by Kai Forbath, and Washington driving late in the fourth quarter, Rahim Moore made a game-saving interception on the Bruin 26 yard line—his eighth to lead the NCAA—with less than a minute left to slam the door on the Huskies and seal the win.
To say that UCLA (4-5, 1-5 in the Pac-10) felt a sensation of jubilation and happy relief over the victory would be an understatement.
There is a sense of determination in the Bruins' camp, as they continue to make their push for a post-season bowl.
Their next opponent is one where they will actually be favored to beat and expected to defeat rather comfortably: Washington State, which at 1-8 is one of the worst teams in the country, ranking near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in nearly every category.
UCLA cannot afford to slack off against the Cougars, though. They need to prepare harder in order to ensure a win in Pullman next week.
If the effort and guts showed against Washington is any indication, I'm sure that the Bruins will take care of business in the Palouse and return with a two-game winning streak.