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SPORTS EXTRA / COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2000

Truth Or Bare

Bruins Will Try to Rebound From Disastrous '99 and Return to Glory of '97-98

August 26, 2000|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UCLA football team, one of the country's rising programs a year ago at this time, enters this season at a crossroads, in position to either dismiss the disastrous 1999 season as an aberration or show itself to be on a decline.

That the chance for recovery comes while playing No. 3 Alabama and No. 6 Michigan in the first three weeks, likely leading to a 1-2 start with Fresno State sandwiched between, means redemption for the 4-7 finish will have to come in Pacific 10 play. That's only fitting because that's where the Bruins had their worst showings--giving up 465 passing yards to Stanford, the emotionally crippling defeat against Arizona State on a screen that became a 49-yard touchdown in the final minute, the 48-point loss to Oregon State, scoring more than seven points only once in the last five outings--while going 2-6.

"It's definitely a crossroads year for UCLA," said junior linebacker Ryan Nece, part of the 1998 team that went 10-2 and came within a game--within minutes--of playing for the national championship and in '99 part of the first Bruin team since 1989 to finish ninth in the conference. "If we win big against the teams we need to beat, that's really going to change the way people think about last year. They're going to think it was a fluke, they're going to think they had their off-the-field troubles and weren't healthy a lot of times, the ball just didn't bounce their way.

"This is a program that did have a 20-game winning streak not two years ago. All of the sudden, people forgot about it. But I think if we win, people are going to start to remember that, start to remember the pride and tradition that's out here on this field."

The Bruins have reason to be encouraged, mostly because things can't be that bad again. The offensive line was new, the quarterback was new, the best running back and the best receiver were injured, the handicapped-parking mess didn't end even when the suspensions did. Now comes a group with much better chemistry and, just as important, a new start.

They get the chance to forget the past, 1999. They get the chance to remember the past, '98 and '97.

"It's all the motivation that we need, really," quarterback Cory Paus said. "That's all we want to do, just show that last year is not how this is going to be around here. That's all the motivation any team should need."

The Bruins were picked fourth in the preseason media poll--behind Washington and USC, the two clear favorites, and Oregon--so a return to a bowl game is realistic. This is the squad that will try to get it done:

Quarterback--The decision has been made to go with Paus, but that doesn't mean the evaluation period is over. Although no quick hook is forthcoming, Coach Bob Toledo promising a real commitment instead of a nonconference tryout, the third-year sophomore will still be learning on the fly, against Alabama and Michigan at that, after throwing only 197 passes last season.

The counter is that one of Paus' strengths is his leadership and ability to rally teammates, a trait that could become very important. Beyond that, the marching orders are the same as a year ago: "Don't get us beat." In other words, the Bruins aren't asking Paus to be great right now, merely dependable. Cut down on mistakes--he had two more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns last season. Make smart reads at the line. They believe that is possible.

Ryan McCann is the backup, Scott McEwan the third-stringer.

Running back--DeShaun Foster remains one of the biggest talents in the conference, despite the '99 ruined by injury and little help from blockers. He also could get more chances than ever because tailback by committee is down to two, Foster and Jermaine Lewis, after Keith Brown was included the previous two seasons.

Fullback is not so secure. Matt Stanley, one of the few feel-good stories of last season, must now deliver for an entire campaign, not only the first couple of games while filling in for the suspended starter. Behind him are two players even more unproven there, Chris Jackson and Ed Ieremia-Stansbury, both reserve linebackers a year ago.

Receiver--One of the biggest strengths, not only because of who's back but because of how they came back. Brian Poli-Dixon, who lost his job as the No. 1 split end last season, and Freddie Mitchell, who led the team in receptions but didn't have a touchdown catch, delighted coaches during fall camp with their play and their attitude. Several other familiar names are back--Jon Dubravac and former quarterback Drew Bennett, in his first full season after the switch--but the most intriguing is new, true freshman Tab Perry, an impact player in the making.

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