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SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

From Debacles to Success, Bruins Looking Special

September 28, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

In its last 10 quarters, UCLA has outscored three Division I opponents, 127-36.

Are they that good?

In four games, the Bruins have forced 18 turnovers while committing only five.

Are they that good?

Their star running back has scored more touchdowns--13--then all of their opposing players have scored combined.

Are they that good?

Yes, yes, and yes.

UCLA, which whipped Arizona, 40-27, at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, can no longer be regarded as a curiosity, a parlor trick, a figment of Bob Toledo's imagination.

They are good enough to win the rest of their games.

They are good enough, should Washington State stumble, to go to the Rose Bowl.

They are good enough that it appears those two poorly managed last-second plays against the Cougars and Tennessee cost them a shot at a top-five ranking.

Just ask a proud Arizona team that sat stewing in its steamy locker room in full pads for more than 30 minutes after the loss.

When the doors opened, the expressions remained shut.

"UCLA just wanted it more than us, they were tougher than us," receiver Dennis Northcutt said. "They never gave up. All those third-down plays [17] and they never gave up [nine conversions]."

Quarterback Keith Smith, whose team lost to unbeaten and highly ranked Ohio State last week, put it into a different perspective.

"They can hang with Ohio State, definitely," he said. "They do all the right things."

Those things were everywhere Saturday on a hot afternoon when barely 50,000 showed up, unsure if they would see a game or a sideshow.

Come one, come all, see the nation's best 1-2 team! Will they will fall behind by 24? Will they go ahead by 60? Will they crash early, or choke late?

Five plays into the game, it was none of that. It was football.

After Skip Hicks' first three runs netted zero yards, Cade McNown calmly stepped back and found Dan Farmer and a seam. Farmer caught it over the middle and didn't stop running until he had gained 37 yards.

Hicks scored on the next play, an eight-yard run, easily shaking off a 175-pound cornerback as he crossed the goal line.

On the Bruins' next possession, it happened again. Third down, six yards to go, Eric Scott runs a perfect curl route that results in a nine-yard McNown completion.

Next play, Hicks scores again, this time on a 19-yard run featuring three broken tackles and a piggyback ride for cornerback Kelvin Hunter.

Everyone knew the Bruins' offense was extremely talented. No telling what can happen now that it has also gotten smart.

Then there was the defense, which broke the game open on the first play of the third period, when linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo sprinted through an opening in the Arizona offensive line, knocking Smith on his back and the ball to the ground.

Ayanbadejo was so excited, he never saw the fumble, and performed a celebration dance while the ball bounced freely around at his feet.

Dumb. But UCLA has endured so much already in this young season, it can recover from dumb.

Bruin safety Larry Atkins had the good sense to pick up the darn ball, shortly before Hicks scored what would be the clinching touchdown while Smith walked off the field with an afternoon-ending shoulder injury.

The blitz was a complicated play--"Tiger Flex Tight Exit Safety Red"--but the Bruin defense is starting to understand those things.

The big plays that burned them early are more infrequent with every snap.

The mistakes that both units made in the first two games are not being repeated.

The foolishness that sometimes passes for their third-down pitchouts and all-out blitzes? It's starting to look pretty serious.

"I think they're very impressive. They seem to be doing the same things over and over again and getting better."

So said Homer Smith, Arizona's offensive coordinator and former UCLA assistant.

This is not to say that this optimism extends to the final moments of tight games.

What the Bruins will do there, only Toledo knows.

Their next serious battles should be in November, when they travel to Stanford before playing host to Washington.

Those games will be close, and the Bruins may be asked to win on their final drive.

Will they have enough timeouts to pull it off? Will they call the right plays? Will the debacles of Washington State and Tennessee repeat themselves?

Again, nobody knows.

But in four games, even if they are only 2-2, the Bruins have proven themselves good enough if put in a position to succeed.

"During timeouts today, the Arizona guys were coming over to us saying, 'Dang, you guys are good,' " linebacker Jason Nevadomsky said.

It was one of the few times they guessed right all day.

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