Ducks showed a lot of mettle in loss to Bruins
Discard the fact that UCLA ran and passed for 547 yards.
Discount the magnitude of star tailback Reuben Droughns fumbling the ball away three times. Those numbers hurt, but they weren't killers.
Never mind that UCLA went flat emotionally with a big lead (24-7), something you can almost count on the Bruins to do. They tend to get bored when they aren't being challenged.
Here's the bottom line in Oregon's 41-38 loss to the Bruins in overtime last Saturday at the Rose Bowl: Oregon could have defeated the Bruins -- and probably should have -- even though it surrendered all those yards and got victimized by its own best running back.
Oregon's defense, chewed up by UCLA's explosive offense in the opening half, played brilliantly in the second half, refusing to let the Bruins blow them out of Pasadena on a vapor trail.
The play of linebacker Aaron Cheuvront and defensive backs Tamoni Joiner, Michael Fletcher and Brandon McLemore frustrated the talented Bruins, who are used to having their own way when it comes to making big plays. Cheuvront made eight tackles, McLemore 10 and Joiner intercepted UCLA quarterback Cade McNown and made a brilliant 58-yard return to set up Oregon's first touchdown of the second half.
The Ducks refused to quit in this game. Inspired by their defense, the Ducks' offense found itself in the second half, outscoring the Bruins 24-0 to take a 31-24 with 12:13 left in the game.
All that with Droughns, who rushed for 172 yards on 25 carries, dribbling the ball to the ground time after time. His three lost fumbles led to three UCLA touchdowns.
But cut the guy some slack. The Ducks learned Sunday that he was playing with a broken right leg in the second half. That's a very good excuse, and Duck fans should be very forgiving of that.
But even Droughns' fumbles didn't do in the Ducks.
All they needed to win this game was a little more good fortune. And better poise at the end.
Cheuvront said the Ducks will learn from their inspired performance despite losing.
We now know we can play with the No. 2 team in the nation, said Cheuvront. We love to compete. We were hungry in the fourth quarter and taking it to them. It felt good.
Oregon lost its momentum edge in the sudden-death overtime period. The Ducks took the ball first at UCLA's 25-yard line and went 12 yards backward during the series.
After Oregon quarterback Akili Smith was sacked by UCLA linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo, the drive ended on fourth down on an interception by UCLA cornerback Ryan Roques.
Now needing just a field goal to win, the Bruins played it cozy and ran the ball to the middle of the field until kicker Chris Sailer made up for his chippy of a miss on a 21-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation time to nail a 24-yarder to win.
An Oregon win over UCLA would have been the injection of confidence the Ducks needed to continue on to a possible Pac-10 championship for the second time in four years and another trip to the Rose Bowl.
But it didn't happen. Not quite. But the Ducks came tantalizingly close to springing a huge upset win and shocking the college football world on national television.
Question surrounding the Ducks now is this: How will they get over this loss, which just as easily could have been a win?
We need to turn this negative into a positive, said Oregon wide receiver Damon Griffin, who played perhaps the game of his life during Oregon's final drive of regulation time in the fourth quarter with three catches for 38 yards.
Griffin ran down the field on Oregon's final drive to tie the game and send it into overtime with fire in his heart and determination etched all over his face for his teammates to see.
When Oregon quarterback Akili Smith winked at his friend and favorite receiver before that drive commenced, Griffin knew exactly what it meant.
He was telling me to run down there and get it done, said Griffin.
Griffin was open at least five times during the drive, but Smith could only throw his way three times as he scrambled to elude the fury of the Bruins' pass rush. All three times, Griffin caught passes for a total of 38 yards, the third being a 2-yard touchdown, which allowed Oregon to tie the score at 38-38 with 22 seconds to play and send the game into overtime. His juggling, 19-yard catch of a fourth-down tipped ball gave Oregon a first down at the UCLA 23.
We were determined to get that ball in (for a touchdown), said Griffin. You could see the looks in everybody's eyes.
Life -- and football -- go on for the Ducks. Next up is a matchup with USC on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks (6-1) can't go in feeling sorry for themselves and they have to play with a sense of urgency to win and stay in the Pac-10 title picture.
Oregon needs UCLA to win out and finish the season as Pac-10 champs with an undefeated record. That would put the Bruins in the Fiesta Bowl -- the alliance national championship game -- and mean the second-place Pac-10 team would go to the Rose Bowl.
That could be Oregon.
(Randy Hammericksen is the Mail Tribune's sports columnist. He can be reached at 776-4499.)