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It'll Take Some Doing to Make This Leaf Fall

UCLA: But Bruins could be brought down by Washington State quarterback.

November 09, 1996|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Price is low key when he talks about Ryan Leaf, like a father who doesn't want to bore the lodge meeting with exploits of his son, but still wants the brethren to know that the kid is special.

"He really has progressed quite well," said Price, the Washington State football coach. "He's becoming a better quarterback, technique-wise. His accuracy in passing is getting better. . . . He's just real good underneath the center."

Bob Toledo suffers no such inhibitions.

"He's big and strong, and I watched a video where guys were draped all over his body and he still threw it 30-40 yards down the field," the UCLA coach said of Leaf, whom the Bruins will see today in the Rose Bowl.

"He has a great arm, a great body."

Leaf is another big quarterback, a 6-foot-6, 244-pounder, in what has become a nightmarish UCLA season of playing in the Land of the Giants. Tennessee's Peyton Manning is 6-5; Michigan's Scott Dreisbach 6-4, Washington's Brock Huard 6-5, California's Pat Barnes 6-4 and Stanford's Chad Hutchinson 6-5.

Leaf occasionally causes Price to slip and compare him to Washington State's sainted Drew Bledsoe, now with the New England Patriots.

Is Leaf a better athlete than Bledsoe?

"Oh, yeah," Price said.

Does Leaf have a better arm?

"Not yet."

But Leaf has better statistics as a sophomore, through eight games, at least. He has completed 142 of 255 passes for 2,115 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions for the Cougars, 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Pacific 10.

Bledsoe had 188 fewer yards after eight games as a sophomore.

"He's a great quarterback, who really spreads the ball around to his receivers," said UCLA free safety Shaun Williams, who doesn't much care how good Leaf is. Williams is just glad to be back playing against any quarterback.

He has sat out two games because of a ligament strain in his right knee, and the Bruins have paid for his absence.

"He's our best football player," Toledo said flatly.

Williams watched on television while Barnes rallied Cal against UCLA at Berkeley, only to falter at the end. Then he watched on the Rose Bowl sideline when Hutchinson carved up the Bruins in an 80-yard, fourth-quarter, game-winning drive for Stanford.

"You see people playing your position, and you're glad when they make plays," Williams said. "And when they don't make them, you wonder if you could have made the plays. It's hard. And it hurts."

Glenn Thompkins has filled in for Williams, with help from Eric Whitfield, but at 5-8, 165 pounds, Thompkins is five inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter. It tells, when it's time to match up against someone like Chad Carpenter, the Cougars' leading receiver and a player Williams can look in the eye.

He'll get a chance today, but Thompkins, who is playing with a jammed thumb, will also be on the field, as will five other defensive backs in a seven-back set to counter the passing of Leaf.

Seven defensive backs? Enter Washington State's Michael Black, second in the Pac-10 in rushing with 719 yards in seven games.

Black claims Dorsey High as home, and his picture is on the wall of the Dons' football office, but he never played a varsity down there.

Instead, his high school varsity football consisted of a season at Camp Kilpatrick, a youth correctional facility near Malibu where he was incarcerated long enough to become the CIF Division X player of the year as a sophomore. He didn't play football when he returned to Dorsey.

Most of his football came at West Los Angeles College, where he rushed for 2,403 yards in two years before heading for Pullman.

"When he's healthy, Michael Black is awesome, as good a back as there is in the league," Price said.

Black is nursing an ankle sprained in the Cougars' last game, a 29-24 loss to USC. He ran for 214 yards against Cal Oct. 19 in his first start back after another sprained ankle.

"He may not be 100%," said Price, "but he's in better shape this week than he was against Cal."

Uh-oh.

Add a defense that has not given up a 100-yard rushing game to an opposing running back all season, and the incentive of a bowl game, and Washington State appears formidable, particularly to a struggling team.

UCLA (3-5, 2-3) is still licking its wounds after the last-minute loss to Stanford, and quarterback Cade McNown has become a target of sorts for his inconsistent play.

"I've talked to Cade and told him, 'You're the starter, but maybe there'll come a time when you're not playing well and I'm going to have to take you out,' " Toledo said. " 'Now that doesn't mean you're out forever, because we might put you back in again. But when that time comes, I want you to handle it well and, when that time comes, the guy coming in might do the job well and you might not get back in again. But if he doesn't do the job, you might have the opportunity to go back.'

"That's how we're approaching it."

In other words, McNown goes into today's game on a short leash, with backup Steve Buck at the ready.

It's a problem that Price doesn't have to face. He has Leaf.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Washington State at UCLA

* Where: Rose Bowl, 12:30 p.m.

* Records: Washington State 5-3, 3-2; UCLA 3-5, 2-3.

* TV: Channel 7.

* Radio: XTRA (690).

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