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Bruins Steal the Deal at Arizona

Defense gives up 519 yards, but Leisle's interception helps UCLA escape, 24-21.

October 12, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — It was surprising UCLA's team buses didn't trigger some kind of alarm or set off a few sirens as they pulled away from Arizona Stadium early Saturday evening. This wasn't an exit for the Bruins; it was an escape.

UCLA's highly regarded defense, a unit some have touted as one of the best in the country, was trampled for 519 yards by the nation's worst offense, but the Bruins somehow came away with a 24-21 Pacific 10 Conference victory over upset-minded Arizona before 44,481.

UCLA scored the winning touchdown when defensive tackle Rodney Leisle rumbled 55 yards with an interception early in the fourth quarter and held on when Wildcat freshman Nicholas Folk, who was attempting his first field goal, pushed a 28-yard kick wide right with 5 minutes 28 seconds left in the game.

"I feel like we stole one," Coach Karl Dorrell said after UCLA avoided overtime and improved to 4-2, 2-0 in the conference. "I've been nervous all week. Now you know why."

Arizona (1-6, 0-3) ranked last among 117 Division I-A teams in total offense with a 248.2-yard average, and last in the Pac-10 in rushing and passing offense, and the Bruins had a defense ranked first in the conference and 16th nationally, yielding an average of 294.0 yards a game.

But the Wildcat offensive line opened up holes so big quarterback Nic Costa said "we could have driven semi-trucks through them." Arizona rolled up 243 yards passing and 276 yards rushing, and the Bruins tackled as if the uniforms of Arizona ballcarriers were covered in grease.

Offensively, UCLA threw two interceptions, lost one of its two fumbles and watched helplessly as kicker Justin Medlock missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 9:24 remaining, a kick that would have extended the Bruins' lead to six points.

"It was a lot closer than we felt it should have been," said UCLA quarterback Drew Olson, who completed 15 of 22 passes for 189 yards. "We were striving for perfection, to play four great quarters in every aspect of the game, and we failed to meet our objective.

"It might be a wake-up call, that maybe we're not as good as we thought we were. I don't think we took [Arizona] lightly. They just executed, and we didn't, for whatever reason."

Olson's sentiments weren't shared by everyone in the UCLA locker room, especially after Arizona -- which was outscored, 102-0, in the first halves of its last five games -- took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in six plays for a touchdown, a drive that so stunned the stadium press box announcer that he proclaimed, "Those were Arizona's first points in the first half ... in a long time."

Said Bruin linebacker Brandon Chillar: "That had to do with us [not] coming ready to play. That kind of woke us up. We talked enough all week to where I don't think [we took Arizona lightly], but when a team is 1-5, even if you talk about it, people think we should come in here and stomp them."

It was Arizona running backs Clarence Farmer (25 carries, 122 yards) and Michael Bell (eight carries, 94 yards) who did most of the stomping, as the Wildcats, who had 198 yards rushing in the previous four games combined, racked up 167 yards rushing in the first half Saturday and reeled off six runs of 25 yards or more in the game.

"We did not tackle well," UCLA defensive end Dave Ball said. "We got lucky, I'm telling you."

After Arizona's opening drive, the Bruins bounced back with Medlock's 32-yard field goal late in the first quarter and Tyler Ebell's 18-yard touchdown run early in the second, a score set up by linebacker Spencer Havner's interception of a pass by Wildcat quarterback Kris Heavner and Olson's 37-yard completion to Craig Bragg.

But runs of 41 and 29 yards by Bell set up Costa's one-yard touchdown pass to Farmer to give the Wildcats a 14-10 lead 6:43 before halftime, and wide receiver Biren Ealy beat UCLA linebacker Justin London and split safeties Ben Emanuel and Kevin Brant on a post pattern to catch Heavner's 39-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds left to give Arizona a 21-10 halftime lead.

Olson, who yielded to backup quarterback Matt Moore on UCLA's final two possessions of the half, took over in the third quarter and drove the Bruins 80 yards in 10 plays, with Manuel White scoring on a five-yard run at the 11:17 mark to pull UCLA to within four points, 21-17.

Arizona moved from its 35-yard line to the UCLA 23 late in the third quarter, but the drive stalled when Heavner's pass was intercepted by Mat Ball, the Bruin defensive end's first interception since his first college start against Oregon State in 2000.

The Wildcats threatened again on their next drive, with Farmer's 31-yard catch and run moving them to the Bruin 39 early in the fourth. Heavner attempted a short underhand shovel pass, but the ball hit a Wildcat lineman in the shoulder and bounced into the arms of Leisle.

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