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Now the Run Begins for UCLA

College football: Showdown with Stanford is first of three straight Pac-10 challenges facing Bruins.

October 27, 2001|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — UCLA players call it "the gauntlet," a long steel contraption with cones protruding like T-rex incisors from each side.

Running backs churn from one end to the other, the cones ripping and tugging at their arms and the ball. The idea is to hold tight.

This time of year the gauntlet sits in a lonely corner of the practice field. But today the Bruins begin a similar run through the teeth of their schedule, a three-game stretch against nationally ranked Pacific 10 Conference opponents.

"We can't drop the ball," linebacker Robert Thomas said.

Today's opponent, No. 20 Stanford (4-1, 3-1 in the Pac-10), is at the tail end of the same drill. The Cardinal faced No. 18 Washington State and No. 11 Oregon the last two weeks, losing one and winning one.

No. 4 UCLA (6-0, 3-0) must visit Washington State and play host to Oregon the next two weeks. Losing even one of the Big Three is unacceptable to a team with its sights set on the BCS national championship game.

"The BCS doesn't matter until the end of the season, but what matters is that you position yourself for the opportunity," Coach Bob Toledo said. "And if somebody in our conference wins every game, they should be in the BCS title game.

"It's like I told the team. Right now we are in the toilet bowl and working our way up."

If Toledo's track record against ranked opponents holds, his team has a chance to play in a bowl with a more pleasant odorone that smells like roses. UCLA is 4-0 against ranked teams this season and 14-4 beginning with a victory over Texas in 1997.

Today's challenge is an opponent coming off its most emotional victory in years, 49-42, at Oregon. A high-scoring, heartbreaking loss to Washington State preceded it. Toledo wonders if the Cardinal will have much left for the Bruins.

"When you have an emotional game or an overtime game or a comeback game, you usually don't play as well the next week," he said.

Stanford, however, is experienced enough to stay on an even keel. Every defensive starter has been on The Farm at least four years. All but one offensive lineman is a returning starter.

"They are similar to us," Bruin quarterback Cory Paus said. "It's almost the same team we played last year. They are very good."

The Bruins won, 37-35, last season, dashing Stanford's bowl hopes. Cardinal reserve quarterback Chris Lewis came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes and nearly orchestrated a comeback victory the way he did earlier against USC and Texas.

The way he did against Oregon last week.

With Randy Fasani out because of a sprained knee, Lewis, a redshirt sophomore from Long Beach Poly High, will start. He hasn't done as well in that role, going 0-3 as a starter last year.

'Chris is a year older now," Cardinal Coach Tyrone Willingham said. "He knows a lot more. He sees a lot more. He's grown."

Lewis has help. He has a fast receiver in Luke Powell and a tall receiver in Teyo Johnson. He has an elusive running back in Brian Allen and a powerful back in Kerry Carter. And there is that experienced line.

Stanford has the best offense UCLA has faced, but as Thomas said, "Every team is supposed to have a pretty good offense until they face us."

UCLA has allowed 77 points this season and Stanford has scored 84 in the last two weeks, (so something has to give. The Bruins have allowed no more than 17 points in a game, and Stanford has scored no fewer than 21 and has scored at least 38 in four of five games.

Stanford is less imposing on the other side of the ball, especially the last two weeks when Washington State scored 45 points and Oregon scored 42. Eight or nine defenders will crowd the line of scrimmage and try to limit UCLA tailback DeShaun Foster, who has 970 rushing yards and had at least 100 each of the last two years against the Cardinal.

"He is one of those guys that play the game like he is playing it by himself," Willingham said. "That is a special quality and I have watched so many people just miss him by an inch. After awhile you are saying this is not a coincidence, but that this guy has special skills that other guys just don't have.

'It is not just DeShaun Foster, great running backs make other players good. He has a quality offensive line ahead of him that takes great pride in his production. We are going to need every ounce of confidence, muscle and everything else we have against this team."

Toledo expects no less from the Bruins, not just today but all the way through the gauntlet. Which doesn't end with Oregon on Nov. 10, by the way.

The small matter of a cross-town rivalry is scheduled for the following week.

"It's not one or two or three weeks," Toledo said. "In this conference, this year, it's every week. That's why it is so important not to look ahead, to just focus on the task at hand.

"Stanford is the best team we've played yet. It's a big challenge."

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