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The Pain in Wayne : The More UCLA's Cook Gets Hit the More He Seems to Struggle


Wayne Cook is like the tightrope walker who can't look down. He doesn't want to know if somebody has cut the net.

You can see it in his game. Passes that used to be on target are off, because they are delivered before the target is open and, besides, it's a different target. It's smaller, for one thing. It isn't J.J. Stokes.

But there are other targets, and he's missing some of them, throwing the ball into the ground or eight yards deep when the receiver has run nine or 10.

It's the game of a quarterback fighting a loss of confidence, in himself and his teammates. It's not the game of a senior quarterback who spent his junior season leading UCLA to the Rose Bowl.

"We've been watching films and you can see that (in Saturday's 37-10 loss to Washington) he thought he didn't have the protection, but he did," offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said. "He's been hit so many times that it's tough to stay in the pocket and step forward and throw the ball, so he's stepping away (from the pass rush) and throwing across his body. He's completing some of those passes, but it's a lot harder."

The problem arose in the Washington State game two weeks ago, when Cook was sacked seven times, hit hard on most of his 25 passes and forced to scramble often.

"This week (against Washington) I saw myself stepping away or not stepping into the throw or moving around in the pocket," Cook said.

"I'm even stepping up in the pocket too far sometimes and taking some hits I don't need to."

Never particularly mobile, he also finds himself throwing on the run when he could stop and find a receiver. It's not Cook's game.

"There are times that Wayne is not getting set, is too herky-jerky, too unsettled and is too skitterish," Coach Terry Donahue said. "Some of the reasons for that are: No. 1, he is trying to get used to a new offensive line, and a line that, the week before, didn't get him protected.

"No. 2, at times his running backs aren't doing a good job of getting him protected.

"And No. 3, his receivers at times are not doing a good job of getting open. So there are reasons why Wayne may be lacking some confidence."

It's an offensive line that had three new starters as the season began. All three have been injured, and a second shift of new starters is in place.

The line was a sieve against Washington State, but better against Washington.

"They played a great game," Cook said. "Now, hopefully, I can come back and get my confidence back and believe that I can stay in the pocket and they're going to protect me forever."

The backs are all tailbacks--some converted to fullbacks--who are better suited to running than putting their heads into a linebacker's chest. And the receivers, without the injured Stokes, have struggled, except for Kevin Jordan, who has 35 catches for 541 yards and three touchdowns in five games.

Only Mike Nguyen among the dozen others who have caught passes this season has more than 100 yards, and he has only 101.

"(Cook) may be pushing the ball a little, instead of just ripping it," Donahue said. "It might be because of interceptions, shyness. It might be that he's not sure of the move his receiver is going to make. Where he has a feeling with Jordan and he had a feeling with Stokes, now he's getting used to (slot receiver) Derek Ayers and Bryan Adams playing at split end."

Cook has thrown five interceptions, one more than all of last season, which could be the reason for passes thrown in the dirt or making receivers cut patterns short.

"A couple of times at the beginning of the game, I found myself aiming the ball . . . " Cook said. "It can happen. On one play, I threw it out to the left and I threw it short because I knew the corner was playing closer than usual. I was trying not to make a mistake, but sometimes that can backfire on you. That was one of my goals in the game, not to throw an interception. And I didn't. I didn't even come close.

"I'm going to have to try to find myself a happy medium: not throw the picks, but be bold enough to do what I did before and use my ability."

Said Toledo: "Maybe he's playing a bit tighter now."

He's not the only one. For UCLA to win, Cook has to play well, but so do others.

"Three guys who have to function for us to be a good offensive team are J.J. Stokes, Wayne Cook and (kicker) Bjorn Merten," Donahue said.

Stokes was injured on the second play of the season, against Tennessee, and has played sporadically. Coming off an All-American freshman season, Merten has missed six of his last eight field goal tries, making one of four against Washington after missing one in each of the previous two games.

Cook started strong in victories over Tennessee and Southern Methodist, threw for 217 yards--but with two interceptions--against Nebraska and was hammered by Washington State. Against Washington, he completed 14 of 30 passes for 194 yards, but missed some open receivers.

But it's not that simple.

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