UCLA powers past upstart New Mexico
Las Vegas ? Ed Kezirian’s brief time in the spotlight went much better than Katie Hnida’s.
Kezirian won his only game as UCLA coach as he led the Bruins to a 27-13 victory over New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Hnida made history, however, becoming the first woman to play in a Division I-A football game. She attempted an extra point after New Mexico’s first touchdown but the try, which sailed low, was blocked.
“I can replay in my mind seeing that hand block the kick, and that’s going to be what I think about before I go to bed tonight,” Hnida said. “It’s been a very long road to get here and I thought about it many times, but I really had no specific expectations as to what it would be like.”
UCLA (8-5) got the big plays and defensive stops it needed in the second half to beat New Mexico, making just its second bowl appearance in 41 years.
The Bruins played under Kezirian, who took over the team after Bob Toledo was fired at the end of the regular season. Toledo was replaced with Karl Dorrell, the wide receivers coach for the Denver Broncos, but Dorrell has not yet taken over the team.
Sophomore wide receiver Craig Bragg helped the Bruins win for their fill-in coach.
His 74-yard punt return early in the third quarter broke a 6-6 tie. Bragg was recruited by Toledo to be a game-breaker.
“I take it upon myself to do that and I did it today,” he said.
Bragg had seven touchdowns this season of 30 yards or more and has a career average of nearly 42 yards on his touchdowns. He fielded the punt at the 26, broke a tackle and raced up the left sideline.
“I thought our miscues on special teams and on offense and the big punt return were obviously the difference in the game,” New Mexico coach Rocky Long said.
Long defended his decision to give Hnida a chance.
“Katie is a valuable member of our team,” Long said. “I think it’s a very unusual situation, and she’s put in a position a lot of times that’s very uncomfortable. I made the decision before the game that we were going to let her kick the first extra point.”
Hnida, with her blond hair in a ponytail, attempted the kick after the Lobos took a 6-3 lead on a 55-yard interception return by Desmar Black with 8:20 left in the first quarter.
The 5-foot-9, 150-pound Hnida was on the Colorado roster in 1999 and suited up for the Buffaloes in the Insight.com Bowl. She walked on to the New Mexico team before this season.
The Bruins put the game away with Bragg’s punt return and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter off New Mexico turnovers. Page scored one minute into the fourth quarter on a 29-yard return after he picked the ball off a pass from Casey Kelly that hit tight end Zach Cresap in the back.
Freshman halfback Tyler Ebell scored with 10:40 left after New Mexico’s third turnover of the game — a fumble by wide receiver Joe Manning that was recovered by linebacker Brandon Chillar at the Lobos 31.
Bragg’s punt return was the Bruins’ first for a TD since 1998.
New Mexico (7-7) has played in only seven bowl games since 1939 and has not won one since 1961, and it showed.
While the Lobos’ blitzing and stunting defense held UCLA’s rushing game to 26 yards in the first half, New Mexico’s offense struggled to sustain drives or killed them with penalties.
The Lobos’ other score was on an 11-yard pass from Kelly to Manning in the fourth quarter.
UCLA got first-half field goals of 49 and 39 yards by Nate Fikse. The first one, with 10:24 left in the first quarter, was set up by freshman DonTrell Moore’s fumble at the Lobos’ 21 on New Mexico’s second play from scrimmage.
Moore, who rushed for 1,117 yards this season, ran tentatively the rest of the game and had just 17 yards on 14 carries.
Hnida’s failed kick didn’t matter; she made her mark just by taking the field.
Heather Sue Mercer earned a spot on the Duke roster as a walk-on in 1995 but was cut before the 1996 season.
In 1997, Liz Heaston became the first woman to score in a college game, kicking two extra points for Willamette, which was then an NAIA school. Last year, Jacksonville State’s Ashley Martin became the first woman in Division I-AA to score, kicking four extra points.
“This game isn’t really about me, it’s about the players,” Kezirian said.