Thursday, Dec. 26, 2002 | 10:26 a.m.
Patience proved to be a pretty good virtue for the UCLA Bruins in Wednesday's 11th annual Las Vegas Bowl at sunny Sam Boyd Stadium.
Tough defense and strong special teams play didn't hurt either.
On an afternoon when New Mexico junior placekicker Katie Hnida made national headlines for becoming the first female to ever play in a Division I-A football game -- her only PAT try was blocked -- it was UCLA's defense and special teams that came up with the big plays in a 27-13 victory before an announced crowd of 21,584.
"We went into the game being patient, and I think the kids understood that we were going to keep pounding the rock," interim UCLA head coach Ed Kezirian said. "We were just waiting for the opportunity to create and make a big play in the kicking game and also to gain field position."
Although the strategy made for a dull and ugly defensive battle to watch, it worked to perfection for a UCLA squad that had to overcome the memories of back-to-back season-ending drubbings by USC and Washington State as well as the firing of head coach Bob Toledo. Ex-Bruin receiver Karl Dorrell, an assistant coach with the Denver Broncos, officially takes over for Toledo today.
"We really stressed getting a lot of turnovers," Reese, who finished with eight tackles, including three for loss, said. "The last couple of games we weren't really good at getting turnovers."
The Bruins hadn't been good at much of anything defensively in those final two losses to the Trojans and Cougars, allowing a total of 1,009 yards and 100 points in the two games.
"It was tough the last couple of weeks living with that, giving up that many points," Reese said.
But UCLA's defense pitched a shutout over the first 54 minutes. New Mexico's only points in that span came on a 55-yard interception return by cornerback Desmar Black in the first quarter that gave the Lobos a 6-3. Hnida, a third-string walk-on placekicker who became the first female to ever play in a bowl game or a NCAA Division I-A football contest, then had her low PAT attempt blocked.
The game was tied, 6-6, early in the third quarter when Bragg eluded two potential tacklers, Martin Lovato and Mike Mohoric, and then broke free up the left sideline for a Las Vegas Bowl record 74-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 13-6 UCLA lead.
"I just told myself to keep my feet going as long as I could," Bragg said. "I knew I had a chance to break it as soon as I spun away from those guys. When I got away from them, I knew I would score a touchdown. I saw nothing but blue shirts. And that's always a good feeling."
Early in the fourth quarter, the Bruins extended their lead to 20-6 when Page, beaten on the play by Lobo tight end Zach Cresap, found himself in the right place at the right time. A pass by Lobo quarterback Casey Kelly hit the unsuspecting Cresap in the shoulder pad and bounced directly to Page who then scooted 29 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown.
"Man, they ran a play-action option thing and we kind of bit a little bit," Page said. "I saw (Cresap) in the flat and I just ran toward him. He wasn't looking for the ball and it bounced off of him. I just caught it."
And then turned around to see nothing but open field between himself and the end zone.
"Those are the best ones," Page said. "You get the pick and then there's nobody in front of you."
One play after Page's touchdown, the Bruins forced their third turnover of the game when cornerback Joe Hunter hit wide receiver Joe Manning, who fumbled, and linebacker Brandon Chillar recovered at the New Mexico 31.
Seven plays later, freshman tailback Tyler Ebell (25 carries for 70 yards) dove in on 4th-and-goal at the one to give UCLA a 27-6 lead and put the game out of reach.
"I thought that if we hadn't made those mistakes, it would have been a very close game," New Mexico coach Rocky Long said. "We might have won."
Kezirian, known more recently for his towel-waving sideline antics during games than the fact he played as an offensive lineman for the Bruins and coached under Terry Donahue in Westwood, ends his college coaching career a perfect 1-0.
"I've always wanted to feel like the richest man in Las Vegas and right now I feel like I am," he said.