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Manning Will Do a Lot More Than Hand Off

September 06, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peyton Manning was startled.

Then he was embarrassed.

Then frustrated.

He was a freshman, but hardly callow, a third-string quarterback largely because of his birth certificate, on the 1994 trip to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl because Tennessee wanted to give him a taste of life on the road.

And then Jerry Colquitt suffered a career-ending injury. And then Todd Helton needed a rest.

Enter Manning, eager, enthusiastic . . . and a bit daunted by the challenge of facing the Bruin defense.

"I was very shocked," he said this week, before today's game at the Rose Bowl. "I really wasn't ready at that point, and I was extremely nervous. My heart was pounding."

But he didn't want anybody to know as he joined the Volunteer huddle.

"My dad always told me to be a leader and take control," he said. "I tried to give a rah-rah speech, and [the other players] told me to shut up and just call the play.

"I said, 'Yes, sir,' and did."

A handoff. Another. A third. And then it was fourth down and Manning's first appearance as a Volunteer was over.

"Three handoffs and out," he said. "I was frustrated that I didn't get to throw a pass."

He has thrown 942 of them since, completing 602 for 7,692 yards and 58 touchdowns, and he arrives in Pasadena today as a mature, polished player. Probably the best quarterback in college football.

Once challenged, he's now the challenger.

And, perhaps ironically, the challenge is to the Bruin offense.

UCLA's defense was shattered in giving up 529 yards a week ago in a 37-34 loss at Washington State. To make matters worse, the Bruins lost their best defensive player, free safety Shaun Williams, because of an ankle injury in Wednesday's practice.

Their theory, then, is that if Tennessee doesn't have the ball, Manning can't beat them.

That presents another problem.

"Obviously you've got to be concerned about their offense, because they're so explosive and can score a lot of points and have got a great quarterback and great receivers," Coach Bob Toledo said. "But what a lot of people fail to realize is that they've got a great defense. They led the Southeastern Conference in defense last year and, in my opinion, they're better than they were a year ago.

"So that is a real concern, because you've got to keep the ball away from Manning. How do you keep the ball away from him? You move the chains [offensively]. But they won't let you move the chains sometimes, because they get the ball back real quick."

Tennessee defenders recovered four fumbles and intercepted a pass in a 52-17 drubbing of Texas Tech in the Volunteers' season opener. And a shuffle in the lineup this season may well have made their defense better than the one that gave up 310 yards in a 35-20 victory over UCLA at Knoxville a year ago.

Leonard Little was an all-SEC performer a year ago at defensive end, turning in 8 1/2 sacks in seven games before suffering a knee injury.

"I was double-teamed a lot last year at the end and the coaches wanted to find a way to hide me on the field to make it harder to double-team me," Little said.

Now he's hidden in plain sight, at middle linebacker, where he made six tackles against Texas Tech.

No matter how long the Bruins are able to keep the ball, Manning is going to get his chances against a defense that was embarrassed a week ago, demoralized at mid-week and now is hungry for a chance to atone for its shortcomings.

"We didn't play well, weren't really up to game speed," UCLA linebacker Brian Willmer said. "I think the difference this week might be the want, really the necessity, the need to get to Manning, because if you give Manning time he'll kill you. Give Manning time, he's going to pick you apart. He throws great balls, and we need some pressure on him to get him moving around in the pocket, to get him on his toes. So we can't sit back there and just try to get great reads in coverage.

"We need to get him a little jittery back there, get a little nervous feet, and throw the ball he might not necessarily throw if there wasn't somebody bearing down on him."

The idea is to keep Manning on the move, unable to challenge a revamped secondary that has Glenn Thompkins replacing Williams, and also has cornerbacks Javelin Guidry and Aaron Roques, who were torched by Washington State.

Tennessee will get big plays. The UCLA defense is challenged to keep their number at a minimum.

And to get a little help.

"You've got to hope he's not as hot," said Toledo. "You've got to hope he's a little off. You've got to hope the smog gets to him, all those things. You've got to hope he's not having one of those good days. He's got to have a bad-hair day, you know."

It's a lot of hope.

And without it, perhaps no hope at all.

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