It is impressive that UCLA is ranked second nationally in rushing defense, ahead of Penn State and right behind Oklahoma. It is more impressive to meet Mark Walen, UCLA defensive tackle.
Walen is a fifth-year senior, a 6-foot 5-inch, 252-pound finished product. He was a redshirt his first year, played behind Irv Eatman his second and struggled with injuries his third. Those experiences have put him in the midst of an outstanding senior year.
Or, as he put it: "I proved last year that I can play. This year I had to come up a notch." He adds, with a smile, "It's time. I've paid my dues."
Walen leads the linemen with a total of 51 tackles, including 6 sacks and 3 other tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He also has a fumble recovery and has been credited with breaking up two passes.
Walen is one of the team captains, the only senior on the defensive line, but he doesn't go on about being a leader. He's not a braggart or a rah-rah kind of guy. He's more the epitome of the Bruin team--the approach is low-keyed confidence, more intelligent than emotional.
On more than one occasion, UCLA Coach Terry Donahue has admitted, with big games approaching, that he has no idea whether his team is up, down or indifferent. That's not surprising.
"It's hard to feel the pulse of this team," Walen said. "That's just the way we are . . .
"With this team, it's hard to tell what the emotion is. Everybody stays kind of into himself, taking care of business during the week. We don't take the top off and let it go until game day. We knew, though, when we were standing in Cal's tunnel that there was no way on God's green earth anybody was going to beat us that day. There was a tremendous amount of energy generated.
"We have intensity, but it's not real emotional. Last year we played with peaks and valleys and we ended up losing to Stanford and Cal. We're more steady this year. This team knows that if we get incredibly up for Arizona, we could have a dropoff and lose to Oregon State the next week."
If UCLA is to return to the Rose Bowl, it is essential that it wins all three remaining conference games. That starts with Saturday night's game at Arizona.
"This is like a three-game season now," Walen said. "Four or five teams can win it. We haven't reached our goals yet. Ever since we slipped up in the Washington game, we've known that a loss would finish us, take us out of Pasadena the first of the year."
UCLA is 6-1-1 overall, 4-1 in the Pac-10, and listed at the top of the conference standings. Statistics and comparative scores would suggest that UCLA has a big edge in this game. But UCLA is 3-2 at Arizona. Besides, Walen doesn't take much stock in statistical comparisons.
"To be second in the nation, flanked by Oklahoma and Penn State, is fantastic," Walen said. "We're proud of that. But that statistic doesn't do squat for you. If we show up with a little sign saying, 'We're second in the nation' I don't think that will stop the Arizona offense.
"I think we take more pride in knowing that on second and seven or second and eight, we're likely to force a pass. . . . We take more pride in knowing that when a team does get a big gain and they get inside the 40, we don't give up and concede them a touchdown. If they're going to score, we're pretty good at taking away the touchdown and holding them to a field goal.
"We're proud, but I think our actions speak louder than our words. People, especially the experts, will judge by what we do in the next few weeks. The truth will come out. If we're that good, it will show."
So far, UCLA has been that good. And the defense has held its own.
"We have a balanced attack," Walen said. "I'm not talking about offense, defense and kicking. I'm talking about mentally and physically. We understand our opponent. Knowing what they do is as important as physically beating them. If you go in clueless, you can't win."
And UCLA has to win some more games to get to Pasadena on New Year's Day. "I can't think of anything in terms of athletic endeavors that would be better than to be a team captain for UCLA in the '86 Rose Bowl," Walen said. "It's something you can put on your resume."
Especially when applying for a job with a pro football team.