Football Writers Association of America 2003 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: GAME (IMMEDIATE DEADLINE)
Lee Jenkins, Orange County Register

PASADENA UCLA coach Bob Toledo left the field surrounded by eight armed policemen.

Never has he looked more protected. Never has he been less secure.

As he walked into the locker room with his bolstered security force, Toledo strode past athletic director Dan Guerrero, who will meet with him Monday. Guerrero said he has not decided if the coach will be back or will be fired.

Washington State might have made Guerrero's choice a little easier. If Toledo was hoping to rally support and save his job Saturday, he fell far short in a 48- 27 loss to the No. 7 Cougars.

Lee Jenkins
Orange County Register
Age: 26
College: Vanderbilt
Background: Jenkins came to the Register in 2000 to cover UCLA football and basketball. Before that, he covered the Colorado Avalanche for the Colorado Springs Gazette after graduating from Vanderbilt, which he attended on the Grantland Rice-Fred Russell Sportswriting Scholarship.

While 10-2 Washington State clinched a return trip to the Rose Bowl, the 7-5 Bruins watched another team turn their home field into a parade ground. UCLA has lost four games at the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1989, and not even the players feel comfortable here anymore.

"I don't like seeing somebody come into our house and know they're coming back," said tailback Tyler Ebell, who had the least productive game of his young career, rushing for only 10 yards. "It's like they came into our home and robbed us."

At this time of year, the Bruins traditionally give it up pretty easily. They have now finished the last five seasons with a thud, and none resonates as loudly as this.

With the college football nation watching, UCLA fumbled a snap, fumbled a kickoff and had a punt blocked.

The Bruins also gave up an 80-yard touchdown run when the Cougars were just trying to kill the clock.

As a result, two teams from the Pac-10 will win spots in the BCS, the conference will make $4.5 million and Toledo might not keep his job. Among the 56,335 in attendance were many mixed emotions.

"I've never seen a game where all of those people want you to lose," Toledo said. "The Trojans were the only ones who really wanted us to win."

In many ways, this looked a lot like the blowout two weeks ago. The only difference was that the Bruins were fortunate enough to actually stay in it.

UCLA was lucky when Washington State botched a fake field goal at the six-yard-line and thankful when the Cougars tried a foolish on-side kick that didn't travel the requisite distance. One play later, receiver Junior Taylor made an acrobatic 39-yard touchdown snag, giving the Bruins hope at halftime.

"That was just an unbelievable error kicking the ball like that," Washington State coach Mike Price said. "It was just terrible and it made everybody furious."

Especially Jason Gesser. After hobbling at the start, the senior quarterback warmed up his gimpy right ankle and kicked UCLA with four unanswered scoring drives.

As he distributed the ball to each of his rangy receivers all of the starters came down with at least 68 yards Gesser schooled the Bruins' young quarterbacks, who never appeared so raw.

Against USC, Toledo pulled Drew Olson too quickly, and against Washington State, he stayed with him too long. Down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, safety Ben Emanuel made an interception in the end zone, but Olson promptly threw his second pick of the game and watched Erik Coleman return it 25 yards to seal the outcome.

"Until that last interception, we thought we could come back," Olson said. "But we are turning the ball over a lot more right now and that makes for some hard days. It felt like we were behind the whole time."

Oddly enough, UCLA actually led in the first quarter, when Emanuel took an interception 41 yards to the end zone and receiver Jon Dubravac threw his third touchdown pass of the season.

But the Bruins couldn't win on gimmicks alone. They netted just 53 yards rushing, allowed 220, and sacked Gesser only once. Washington State even had a receiver, Collin Henderson, launch a 66-yard touchdown pass.

"We just gave up so many big plays and had so many mistakes," safety Jarrad Page said. "Everything was going against us this week."

According to Toledo, the speculation about his future damaged the team's psyche. Many players believed their own fans were rooting against them.

When the Bruins looked into the stands, they saw an empty student section and realized their classmates were home studying for final exams, which start Monday.

Indeed, finality is in the air at UCLA.

"I'm not going to lie, the whole thing about coach was distracting and it was in our minds," senior tight end Mike Seidman said. "If those are our fans, it's upsetting that they cheer for their team to lose no matter who the coach is."

While the Bruins were perturbed, the Cougars believed they were destined. Heading to their walk-through Friday, the bus got caught in rush-hour traffic. The team was about to turn around when players saw the Rose Bowl sign in the distance.

Washington State will be back Jan. 1. What's less certain is whether Toledo will also be around to ring in a new year.

Comment from the judge, Gene Duffey: UCLA loses to Washington St. and Bob Toledo probably loses his job. Good focus on how Toledo's job likely depended on the outcome of the game without overlooking the importance of the win to the Cougars. Good quotes from Toledo and good quote from a tight end saying the coach's job status was a distraction.

Second place: Ken Goe, The Oregonian
Third place: Tom DAngelo, Palm Beach Post
Honorable Mention: Josh Robbins, Orlando Sentinel; Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Wright Thompson, Kansas City Star; Pete Fiutak, collegefootballnews.com; Dennis Dodd, CBS SportsLine