Reporting from Washington – Defense wins championships, so goes the football coach-speak. While no one wearing a UCLA uniform over the last decade can actually vouch for that, one thing was clear Tuesday:
Defense can win the EagleBank Bowl.
The Bruins, on a frosty night at RFK Stadium, brought home a trophy — their first since 2005 — by finally brushing aside Temple, 30-21. They did so by going back to the basics: See the ball . . . catch the ball.
Linebacker Akeem Ayers returned an interception two yards for a touchdown to erase a 21-20 deficit with six minutes left. It was the spotlight moment in a defensive effort that limited Temple to 41 yards and no points in the second half.
“I actually slipped on the play,” said Ayers, who also had a game-high nine tackles and was named the game’s most valuable player. “I lined up at defensive end and fell as soon as the ball was snapped. I got up and the quarterback threw the ball right to me.”
Pratfalls rarely work out so well — especially for the Bruins this season. But when Ayers skated into the end zone on the frozen turf, the climb from a 21-7 first-half deficit was over, and the Bruins were the ones left laughing.
“We’re back in the bowl game business,” Coach Rick Neuheisel said as he ran off the field at the end.
The evening began cold — 32 degrees with a wind-chill factor of 19 at kickoff — and got even colder, especially for Neuheisel, who was doused with a bucket of ice water after the game.
But the glow that came off Neuheisel’s spin afterward was warming, at least to the Bruins.
“This is the start, the start of collecting these wonderful trophies and memories that college football produces,” Neuheisel said.
That giddiness comes from a season in which the Bruins climbed back to mediocrity, finishing 7-6. They have won more than seven games only twice in the last 10 seasons, and have not reached the Rose Bowl since the 1998 season.
Still, although UCLA finished eighth in Pacific 10 Conference play, the victory gave them their first winning season since 2006 and was the step forward Neuheisel sought after going 4-8 in 2008.
That positive finish to an inconsistent season seemed in doubt late in the first half, after the Owls (9-4) capitalized early and led, 21-7, with 1:16 left. With quarterback Vaughn Charlton completing 12 of 16 passes — one for a 26-yard touchdown to tight end Steve Maneri before the game was three minutes old — the Owls rolled up 241 yards before halftime.
Touchdown runs by Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown had Temple in control.
But the Owls mismanaged the clock, leaving the Bruins with enough time to get into kicker Kai Forbath’s range. He made a 40-yard field goal as the clock ran out.
“I told our guys there are two things you have to do when you go to a bowl game, No. 2 is have fun and No. 1 is to win,” Neuheisel said. “When it was 21-7, I was worried I didn’t emphasize that enough.”
No need to worry.
“We didn’t come here to lose,” senior linebacker Reggie Carter said. “We have a long flight home and we weren’t going home losers.”
Safety Rahim Moore made that clear at halftime.
“I gave everyone a speech, saying, ‘This is not how we play,’ ” Moore said. “I was crying and punching things.”
The next haymaker landed on the Owls’ chin. From day one, the Bruins’ defense was supposed to carry the team. The second half was one long piggyback ride.
UCLA’s offense had two big moments — quarterback Kevin Prince’s 46-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Rosario in the first half, and Prince’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Austin on a fourth-and-one play early in the second half.
The game was then taken over by the UCLA defense.
Temple got to the Bruins’ nine-yard line on its next possession. But on fourth and one, Carter stopped Brown for no gain.
“Their tight end came over to block me and I squeezed underneath him and the running back came right to me,” Carter said. “We kind of bumped heads and I kind of won.”
The Owls had minus-one yard in their final five drives. They also had two passes intercepted — one a long ball Moore snagged at the seven-yard line, the other by Ayers.
“If you had to draw up the perfect way to play defense, that second half is what you’d end up with,” Carter said. “When you’re on, you’re on, and, man, we were on.”