MCNOWN LOSES LUNCH, WINS GAME.
Cade McNown threw two passes to the wrong-colored jerseys, slung two certain scoring passes that slipped through his receiver's fingertips and tossed his pregame meal in front of a crowd the size of Burbank.
To be sure, the UCLA senior quarterback has had better days. But he hasn't had many better dusks than the one that descended on the Rose Bowl Saturday shortly after McNown brought the No. 2-ranked Bruins' perfect season back from a near-death experience.
Chris Sailer's foot ultimately put UCLA over the top against Oregon, 41-38 in overtime. But make no mistake, McNown's guts were the difference in the showdown of the Pacific-10 premier offenses.
The nation's longest consecutive-game winning streak was stumbling toward that bright, white light that beckons the dying when McNown heaved a throw with just under three minutes remaining in regulation that traveled 61 yards in the air and landed like a feather in Danny Farmer's outstretched arms at the Oregon 5-yard line. Farmer took it in for what amounted to a 60-yard play from scrimmage to break a 31-all deadlock.
Less than two minutes later - all the time it took Oregon's Akili Smith to counter with an 11-play, 65-yard scoring drive - McNown heaved a 53-yard pass to backup quarterback Drew Bennett on the first breath of the Bruins' last gasp. In the stands 75,367 souls were waiting to exhale.
Perhaps all that pent-up breath made the air too heavy for Sailer, who inexplicably missed a 21-foot chip shot with 22 seconds remaining to force the extra stress test.
Of course McNown passed it with flying colors; never mind that he was battling an upset stomach and an upset-minded Oregon team that is so good it deserves to move into the top-10 despite the loss.
After the Bruins defense unflinchingly pushed the 11th-ranked Ducks offense backwards in its first series in overtime, McNown trotted out onto the field like he hadn't a worry in the world and told his teammates, ``Let's just get it in here, OK?''
Everyone nodded dutifully and no one got uptight that a 14-game unbeaten streak, a Pac-10 crown and a national title were riding on the next few plays. That's why McNown's teammates value him in a way no Heisman Trophy voter possibly could appreciate. When he's with them in the foxhole, it doesn't seem quite so claustrophobic and chilling.
``We knew,'' said offensive tackle Kris Farris, ``he was going to find a way to win the game for us.''
McNown did better than that. He arranged things so the Bruins (5-0, 3-0) could preserve their winning ways and at the same time save Sailer's self-confidence from the ledge it had crawled out on.
McNown handed off thrice to tailback Keith Brown and twice to fullback Craig Walendy to move the ball to the Oregon 6. It was Sailer's spotlight from there and he was basking in it after splitting the uprights with a 24-yard field goal.
``I have tremendous faith in Chris,'' said McNown.
Indeed, McNown possesses a spiritual center so sturdy he didn't even think to treat sophomore split end Brian Poli-Dixon like a leper after Poli-Dixon dropped a perfectly-thrown 40-yard strike on the Bruins' first series in the third quarter that would have broken the game open at 31-14.
``You can go ahead and say it. I dropped an easy ball,'' said Poli-Dixon, who also let a scoring opportunity slip through his hands in the fourth. ``I just wanted to get off the field. I was disgusted with myself.''
Late in the third McNown had a disgusting moment of his own, stopping in mid-bark to barf. He left the field for one play, only because the rules required him to, then returned to complete nine of his final 13 passes.
``Cade was very sick,'' said the Bruins' third-year head coach Bob Toledo. ``He was throwing up in the locker room. He was weak, but he made big plays.''
Those plays included a 43-yard strike to Poli-Dixon early in the fourth that set up the 2-yard run by Jermaine Lewis to tie the game at 31.
From remorse to redress. Poli-Dixon wasn't ashamed to admit that on this day Sailer wasn't the only one thanking McNown for second chances.
``It's really easy to jump on someone's back for what they did wrong but this team's not like that,'' Poli-Dixon said. ``I had a horrible game and Cade didn't rip me. He just kept telling me to shake it off. He's got a lot of heart and character.''
That's why McNown should get a lot of Heisman votes even though he has a good-but-not-God-like 54-percent completion rate and five interceptions to go with his 10 touchdowns. McNown threw for 395 yards Saturday, which is the fourth-best single-game passing performance in school history. But more impressively, he passed his confidence on to his teammates when they needed it most.
``With Cade, you've got to look past his stats,'' Farris said. ``Without Cade McNown we wouldn't win this football game. Without him, we'd be lucky to win three games this year. That's how important he is.''
PHOTO UCLA's Cade McNown falls handing off to Keith Brown. McNown completed 9 of his final 13 passes.
David R. Crane/Daily News