As the final seconds of the season ticked helplessly away, Scott McEwan stood along the UCLA sideline, almost propped up by Tab Perry on one side and Ryan McCann on the other. Hang in there, kid. There is no reason to be distraught.
But there could be no more appropriate snapshot for the final page of the season scrapbook. In a season that dawned with national championship dreams and deteriorated amid a sickly number of injuries, the third-string quarterback threw an interception on the final offensive play of the final narrow loss.
The already hobbled Bruins lost five starters to injury, including quarterback Cory Paus, during a 21-20 Sun Bowl loss to Wisconsin on Friday. The Bruins blew a 20-7 lead, lost by eight or fewer points for the fifth time this season and limped to the finish line with three consecutive losses and a 6-6 record.
McEwan knew how to recognize a heartwarming story. This wasn't one.
If we would have won the game, I would have been the so-called hero, McEwan said. But we lost, and I threw an interception on the last play, so it's devastating.
It shouldn't be. McEwan, who had not thrown a pass in 16 weeks, acquitted himself nicely. After the Bruins lost Paus to a broken collarbone on the final play of the first half, and with second-string quarterback McCann watching from the sideline after shoulder surgery earlier this season, McEwan completed 12 of 17 passes for 135 yards in the second half.
Receiver Freddie Mitchell, playing in perhaps his final college game, caught nine passes for 180 yards and was honored as Sun Bowl most valuable player. Tailback DeShaun Foster ran for 100 yards in the first half and outgained ballyhooed Wisconsin tailback Michael Bennett, who rushed for 83 yards. The UCLA defense gave up 21 points, the fewest yielded in any game since September.
I don't have that disappointed, dejected feeling in my stomach, said linebacker Ryan Nece, who led the Bruins with 11 tackles. We gave up 21 points, after they ran a lot of smack about how many points they were going to get.
The Badgers had seven at the end of a remarkable first half that left Wisconsin Coach Barry Alvarez muttering to a national CBS audience, We were soft.
On the first play from scrimmage, Bennett ran for 15 yards. On the second, he ran for 10. On the fourth play, a 54-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans, UCLA cornerback Jason Bell suffered a broken left foot and sprained left ankle.
By the end of the quarter, the Bruins lost their other starting cornerback, Ricky Manning, to a concussion suffered in a collision with Wisconsin receiver Chris Chambers. The Bruins, who used 10 starters along the defensive line this season, started a sophomore and three redshirt freshmen along the line Friday. And, by the time the afternoon was over, the Bruins had lost safety Marques Anderson, who sprained his left ankle, and linebacker Robert Thomas, who aggravated the stress fracture in his left foot.
But the Bruins stacked the line and held Bennett to eight yards on his final nine carries of the first half. When Alvarez countered by replacing more mobile quarterback Brooks Bollinger with strong-armed Jim Sorgi, Anderson intercepted Sorgi's second pass. Alvarez immediately yanked Sorgi, who did not return.
The Bruins scored on their first two drives first on a 64-yard pass from Paus to Mitchell, who paused to taunt Wisconsin cornerback Jamar Fletcher on the way to the end zone, and then on a 31-yard field goal by Chris Griffith.
Foster ran for a seven-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and the Bruins led, 17-7, at halftime. McEwan completed four of five passes on the first drive of the second half, and Griffith kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the Bruins a 20-7 lead.
As the second half wore on, the Bruins wore down. The Badgers rushed for 123 yards in the half, including 50 by Bennett and 44 by Bollinger. On the drives for their final two touchdowns, the Badgers rushed 15 times and completed three passes.
Still, for the Bruins' much-maligned and injury-racked defense, this was an encouraging closing statement. The Bruins gave up a school-record 368 points this season, but they finished by yielding 21 to a Wisconsin team that had scored 118 in its previous three games.
Even the Bruins themselves weren't quite sure what to make of this one, or this season. To receiver Brian Poli-Dixon, this game validated the Bruins' oft-held contention that they are tantalizingly close to national-championship caliber.
I think we kicked their butts. That's what I think, Poli-Dixon said. I don't believe in moral victories, but we were manhandling them.
To Anderson, this game was all about the scoreboard. Anderson talked about hoping to succeed Fletcher as winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, presented to the nation's top defensive back. Anderson also talked about the leadership mantle he intends to inherit.
I have to motivate our team not to have another 6-6 season, Anderson said, but to come out with a vengeance.