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UCLA Is Headed Back to Finishing School

Today's game against Stanford crucial for team seeking to avoid another late-season collapse.

October 26, 2002|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

This baker's dozen has been popped straight into the oven.

The 13 uninjured UCLA seniors are feeling the heat, feverishly working to make their final season something more than a total disaster.

Dreams they had as freshmen of winning a Pacific 10 Conference championship and appearing in a top-tier bowl game have gone unfulfilled. And they've always finished poorly, having lost four of the last five games in 1999, the last three in 2000 and four of the last five in 2001.

Beginning with today's home game against struggling Stanford, the seniors are struggling to end their careers with a semblance of accomplishment and pride.

"We've kept our spirits high," senior linebacker Marcus Reese said. "We've got to keep on battling and fighting. We can't have any quitters."

The veterans still wince at the memories of last season's free fall. A larger, more touted senior group lost its focus after its first loss. Players ducked into bathrooms to take cell phone calls minutes before games and talk turned to NFL aspirations.

Team goals were simplified this year. Lofty ambitions were replaced by the simpler goal of focusing on the next game.

After Pac-10 losses to Oregon and California by dishearteningly close scores the last two weeks dropped the Bruins to 4-3 and 1-2, the logic seems inescapable.

"We took care of it before the season even started," senior cornerback Ricky Manning said. "The upcoming game is all I care about. There won't be any Rose Bowl or Pac-10 championship, but what are you going to do?

"We've got to remember why we are here -- to have fun and play the games."

Coach Bob Toledo met with the seniors this week, urging them to remain positive and give their all down the stretch.

"I need them to be supportive. I need them to hang in there. I need them to battle," he said. "They're great kids, and they're not selfish."

The response was encouraging.

"If you dwell on missed opportunities, or the injuries, you go crazy," senior tight end Mike Seidman said. "We've got five more games, plus a possible bowl game. We worked the entire spring and summer for these few Saturdays. We've got to make each one count."

Younger players will follow the seniors' lead. Reese heard some grumbling. Playing time was being questioned. Coaching decisions were being second-guessed. He told the whiners to knock it off.

"It's natural to do that, but we can't complain about negative things," he said. "I see people complaining, especially young ones. I'm just going to do all I can to win the game. I have to trust the coaches."

Senior quarterback Cory Paus is sidelined -- probably for the rest of the season -- because of a broken leg bone. His backup, freshman Drew Olson, is questionable because of a slightly separated shoulder.

Freshman Matt Moore makes his debut today. But he is only one of several freshmen in key positions, frustrating for seniors who don't have time to wait for potential to develop.

Freshman tailback Tyler Ebell has come along quicker than anyone imagined and has racked up three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Freshman fullbacks Keith Carter -- a converted tight end -- and J.D. Groves are strong and tough but often make mistakes out of exuberance and inexperience.

Center Mike McCloskey also is a freshman, causing Toledo to joke that "baseball teams are supposed to be strong up the middle. Well, we're young up the middle."

On defense, safety Jarrad Page and outside linebacker Spencer Havner are freshmen. Both are athletic and mobile enough to make big plays, yet they are occasionally caught out of position.

Experience is something the seniors don't lack. They've had their share of hard knocks too. Breaks have not been kind to a group that might be remembered as the Unlucky 13. Besides Reese, Manning and Seidman, it includes tackles Mike Saffer and Bryce Bohlander, kickers Nate Fikse and Chris Griffith, defensive linemen Sean Phillips, Steve Morgan and Rusty Williams, and reserves Joe Hunter, Jon Dubravac and Saia Makakaufaki.

Among them, only Dubravac, a receiver who was a redshirt last season, has not played the last four years in succession, a rocky stretch in which the Bruins are 21-20.

Today's opponent might be the softest left on the schedule. Stanford (2-4, 1-2) might be without starting quarterback Chris Lewis, and several veterans have underachieved under first-year Coach Buddy Teevens.

Stanford scores fewer points than any other Pac-10 team and defense is the Bruins' strength. But UCLA has not forced a turnover in its losses.

"We've got to have second effort and be more aggressive to force fumbles and be in position for interceptions," Manning said. "You've got to have the mentality that you are going to make them pay for every mistake.

"You've got to take advantage because you never know how many opportunities you get."

The same can be said for a senior class that is running out of time.

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