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Gauntlet Is Thrown for Quarterbacks

September 10, 2000|Eric Sondheimer

OK, here's the rundown on UCLA's ever-changing starting quarterback position:

Ryan McCann is out, Scott McEwan is in. Or is McCann in and McEwan out?

If you're confused, just think what the coaching staff is going through.

After UCLA barely held on for a 24-21 victory over Fresno State Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, Coach Bob Toledo was appropriately blunt about where things stand.

"We need to get better performances from our quarterback position for us to be successful," he said. "When you don't operate the offense like it's supposed to be operated and you don't complete passes when guys are open and you don't see blitzes, that concerns me. Those guys need to get better fast."

UCLA is 2-0 and ranked 16th in the nation, but uncertainty at quarterback is leaving an uneasy feeling, especially with third-ranked Michigan coming to the Rose Bowl Saturday and the Pacific 10 Conference opener looming against Oregon on Sept. 23.

What's sure is the No. 1 quarterback remains Cory Paus, but his right arm is in a sling and he won't be available for at least two more weeks while his separated shoulder continues to heal.

McCann had been installed the starter after coming off the bench last week to replace Paus and leading the Bruins to a 35-24 upset of Alabama. Toledo was so bold as to offer McCann the opportunity to win the job permanently if he performed well in coming games.

But Toledo acted decisively by pulling McCann at halftime with the Bruins on top, 10-7, disappointed in the sophomore's decision-making.

"I did make a couple bad calls and you can't do that in Division I football," McCann said. "There were some assignments I missed."

Enter the seldom-used McEwan. In the third quarter, UCLA ran 16 plays and got 17 yards. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But Toledo stuck with McEwan, and he delivered, guiding the Bruins on a 12-play, 59-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter that mostly featured handoffs to tailback DeShaun Foster.

Some might think what's so hard about playing quarterback for UCLA? All you have to do is give the ball to Foster, who gained 140 yards in 29 carries and scored two touchdowns.

But Fresno State was beginning to figure out that without Foster's running, UCLA's offense can't produce points, and other teams will surely follow unless McCann or McEwan becomes more competent in executing the passing game.

Some smart-aleck out there is probably ready to suggest receiver Freddie Mitchell be given a shot at quarterback. After all, Mitchell has completed four of five passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns over the past three seasons.

"Freddie's ability to pass is fantastic--as long as it's on a limited basis," offensive coordinator Al Borges said.

So forget Mitchell. And don't expect converted receiver Drew Bennett to start practicing snaps again.

It's down to McCann or McEwan. The coaches haven't lost confidence in either, but their patience is dwindling.

"The coaches are ready for somebody to break through and take this team all the way," McEwan said.

Give credit to both quarterbacks in that they committed no turnovers Saturday. And each continues to have unshakable confidence. Neither quit when told he wouldn't start, both sticking to the credo, "You're one injury away from playing." Their resiliency and determination leave a measure of hope.

"I feel this was a big steppingstone for me," McEwan said. "I've never played this much. Whatever the decision, I'll be ready. Ryan and I have a lot of confidence in each other and in ourselves. We just need to execute better."

Toledo and Borges plan to review game film, see which quarterback executed best and make a decision about a starter for the Michigan game.

The search is on for someone to step up and provide consistency. McCann did it against Alabama. Can he regain his form for Michigan?

"I can do it," he said. "It's a matter of repetition."

But McCann conceded, "You can only get so many chances."

McCann has played better coming off the bench. Last season in an upset of Washington, he completed 12 of 23 for 146 yards after entering in the second quarter. He was the super sub against Alabama last weekend, completing 14 of 24 for 194 yards.

For whatever reason, McCann seems more productive when suddenly thrust into the game without warning.

The opportunity is there for someone to steal the quarterback job at UCLA. The coaches only hope it happens soon.


Eric Sondheimer can be reached at his e-mail address:

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