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Bruins Need to Pick It Up

How UCLA handles Cal blitzes could determine whether its winning streak continues.

October 18, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

If you want to gauge how UCLA is handling the variety of blitzes California is sure to throw at the Bruins in today's Pacific 10 Conference game in the Rose Bowl, keep an eye on the UCLA sideline.

If Eric Bieniemy, who coaches Bruin running backs, is constantly up in the facemasks of his players, waving his arms, pointing his fingers and screaming, as he was last Saturday when Manuel White missed an assignment that allowed an Arizona safety to sack quarterback Matt Moore and cause a second-quarter fumble, then things won't be going swimmingly for UCLA.

If the volcanic Bieniemy remains relatively dormant and only erupts at his normal times -- when a back fumbles, drops a pass or runs to the wrong hole -- then the Bruins probably will be blocking the blitz just fine.

How UCLA -- particularly the running backs, because they're the last line of defense against the blitz -- handles Cal's pressure will go a long way toward determining whether the Bruins can run their winning streak to four and remain atop the conference standings this afternoon.

"They bring so many different blitzes from so many different looks and formations ... it's gonna be a tough week," said White, who shifts between fullback and tailback and is considered UCLA's best blocking back. "I know I'm going to play a big role."

That was apparent as early as Tuesday. The first thing the Bruins did in their first full-pads practice of the week was work on blitz coverage, and it was the focal point of preparations all week.

"My responsibility for this week is to know their personnel, know the different things they do," White said after Tuesday's practice. "There's going to be a lot of late nights watching film."

UCLA has done a decent job against the blitz, White's mistake against Arizona notwithstanding, but few teams pressure the quarterback as Cal does under second-year Coach Jeff Tedford. The Bears' sack leaders are defensive back Donnie McCleskey, with 5 1/2, and outside linebacker Wendell Hunter, with four.

But with such pressure comes opportunity. Cal has given up 17 plays of 30 yards or more in its first seven games, including seven in a season-opening loss to Kansas State. Six of those 17 big plays have gone for 50 yards or more.

When a linebacker blitzes, there is a potential for a big gain on a screen pass or draw play. When a safety blitzes, there figures to be one-on-one coverage on wide receivers such as Craig Bragg, a big-play threat who has caught 37 passes for 519 yards and a touchdown.

"If we pick up the blitz, it's great for the offense, but if they catch you sleeping ... it can go both ways," White said. "We can use it to our benefit, or we can let it kill us. We can dictate whether it's good or bad for us by picking up the blitz or not being aware of what's going on."

But the burden of beating the blitz won't fall entirely on White, tailbacks Tyler Ebell and Maurice Drew and fullbacks J.D. Groves and Pat Norton.

If quarterback Drew Olson senses a blitz and thinks UCLA has the wrong play, he must react quickly and call an audible. If Olson is caught by surprise, he must be agile enough to sidestep a blitzing defender, step up in the pocket and find his primary receiver.

And if offensive coordinator Steve Axman senses a blitzing situation, he must call the right play to offset it.

"Cal puts a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways on any given down, but they've been hurt when they've tried to do those things as well," UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. "So we're hoping we're going to have the right play called at the right time, where we can get them in a situation that's advantageous for us.

"We're going to protect the quarterback -- we won't be foolish in that regard -- but hopefully we can do some things that will create some opportunities for us."

Cal has had mixed results with its defensive philosophy, getting burned repeatedly by Kansas State and losing to Utah. But the Bears also beat Illinois and recorded one of the biggest upsets of the season when they defeated third-ranked USC, 34-31, in triple overtime at Berkeley on Sept. 27.

"They've had some losses," Dorrell said, "but they've also had some big-time wins."

None was bigger than the USC game, one of the biggest victories in recent history for Cal, but it exacted an emotional price. The Bears came out flat the following week, losing to Oregon State, 35-21.

"I felt we practiced well all week going into the Oregon State game, and we seemed fine in the locker room and when we came out of the tunnel," Tedford said. "But when the game started, we didn't seem to have the emotional juice we had the week before, not just from the players but from the fans. It wasn't the same."

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