PASADENA, Calif. - The Ghost of Football Failures Past visited the Arizona Wildcats around 4 p.m. Saturday, settling into one of the many empty seats at the Rose Bowl for the fourth quarter of an oddly competitive game.
Arizona led UCLA by five points, though the game probably shouldn't have been that close. Quarterback Matt Scott had thrown an interception in the end zone, and Juron Criner had dropped another pass over the middle.
On the night before Halloween, surely something unexplained - and unwelcome - was heading the 15th-ranked Wildcats' way.
Except it never arrived.
The UA defense made four consecutive fourth-quarter stops and forced a key turnover to defeat UCLA 29-21 before 53,408 at the Rose Bowl.
The Wildcats (7-1, 4-1) secured their third straight winning season using the same formula that has lifted them from the Pac-10's basement to the No. 15 spot in the polls: A solid passing attack and stout defense.
Scott threw for a career-high 319 yards and ran for 71 more in his second start of the season. Criner caught eight passes for 127 yards and a touchdown, and Keola Antolin ran for 111 yards and a score. Alex Zendejas kicked three field goals.
And Arizona's defense, the hallmark of this resilient team, turned the Bruins away every time the momentum threatened to shift their way.
Defensive end Brooks Reed described the fourth quarter as "scary," but indicative of the program's recent growth.
"If this was two years ago, and it was like this and the crowd got back in the game, we'd feel sorry for ourselves and we'd see teams come back," he said. "We kept our heads up, and kept playing."
Cornerback Robert Golden, who had a first-half interception, said the Wildcats "rose to the occasion" when they could have folded.
"Whenever the games go down like this, it sometimes - it always - slips away from us," he said.
Not Saturday - though it was close.
UCLA (3-5, 1-4) cut Arizona's lead to 26-21 on the second play of the fourth quarter, when Richard Brehaut found Josh Smith on a 49-yard flea-flicker. The Rose Bowl crowd rose to its feet when, on the Wildcats' ensuing possession, Aaron Hester intercepted Scott in the end zone.
With 13:12 remaining, UCLA had the ball at its own 20 with a chance to take the lead.
The Bruins went three-and-out.
Three minutes later, UCLA got the ball back at midfield - only to run an ill-advised reverse play and, eventually, punt.
It also happened when the Bruins took over with 3:14 remaining - and with 1:14 remaining.
Each time the Wildcats turned UCLA away. The Bruins gained just 31 yards on their final 18 offensive plays of the game. Brehaut fumbled, too, a critical mistake that allowed Arizona to run the clock out.
The only spark came from the Wildcats, who executed a fake punt with about 5 minutes remaining in the game. Jake Fischer ran the ball 29 yards for a first down, allowing the Wildcats to run more clock.
"Our defense had to tighten up late in the game, which is what we did," said defensive end Ricky Elmore, who had two tackles and a sack. "Arizona football, it's all about defense. Coach always tells us we can't win a championship unless we play defense."
Take away two fluke plays - a 68-yard pass from Brehaut to Randall Carroll just after halftime and the fourth-quarter flea-flicker - and UCLA gained just 182 yards on 53 plays. The Bruins rushed 28 times for just 71 yards against an Arizona team that's ranked first in the Pac-10 in most defensive categories.
"I thought we had good control of the games, outside of those two big plays," UA coach Mike Stoops said. "We had chances to put the game away."
Stoops said Scott "made tons of plays throughout the course of the game," but was bothered by his quarterback's red-zone turnovers. Scott muffed a second-quarter snap at the Bruins' 15, then threw the fourth-quarter pick in the end zone.
"We got the 'W,' " Scott said. "When you're on the road, that's the biggest part."
The Wildcats boarded their team bus at sundown Saturday excited for the most-important month in recent history. Arizona will travel to Stanford next week, then take on USC, Oregon and Arizona State.
Thanks to Saturday's ghostbusting, the games matter.
"The difference is the spirit of this team," Reed said. "It's that never-give-up attitude that keeps us going."
Foles will start if he's healthy
Nick Foles will assume the starting quarterback job next week if he continues to improve physically in practice, coach Mike Stoops said Saturday.
"If Nick's healthy, he'll be our starter next week at Stanford," Stoops said.
Foles, a junior, missed the Arizona Wildcats' 29-21 win over UCLA as he continues to recover from a dislocated right kneecap suffered Oct. 16. Matt Scott threw for 319 yards and a touchdown and ran 12 times for 71 yards in Foles' place, but committed two turnovers in the red zone.
Stoops said Foles "was close" to playing Saturday. He even warmed up on the sidelines in the final minutes while Scott nursed a banged-up wrist.
"If I really had to play, I could have gone in," Foles said. "But Matt's been playing great. It gave me another chance to rest the leg and get better. This week will be big, getting out there in practice."
Foles threw for 1,600 yards and nine touchdowns in his first six games before getting hurt.
• What: Arizona at Stanford
• When: Saturday, time TBA
• TV: TBA
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM