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UCLA VS. ILLINOIS Today at the Rose Bowl 5 p.m., Channel

There's Not Much of a Backup Plan for Bruins

September 13, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

And starting at quarterback for your UCLA Bruins, No. 14 ... the Bubble Boy!

OK, that's an exaggeration. UCLA sophomore Drew Olson will not take the Rose Bowl field for tonight's game against Illinois in a heavy plastic cocoon.

But that's how the Bruins, particularly their offensive linemen, need to treat Olson, because for them to have any chance of beating Illinois tonight -- and to even think about competing with No. 1 Oklahoma next week -- they'll have to provide Brinks-like protection for their quarterback.

With starter Matt Moore out because of a knee injury and backup John Sciarra suspended because of a summer arrest, the depth chart behind Olson drops off like the cliffs at Acapulco.

Backing up Olson tonight will be Brian Callahan, a freshman walk-on who did not start one varsity game at Concord De La Salle High, and whose primary responsibility at UCLA has been to run the scout team in practice.

Callahan seems to have a good head on his shoulders -- he's the son of Oakland Raider Coach Bill Callahan, he grew up watching quarterbacks such as Rich Gannon and Rodney Peete practicing and preparing for games, and he has a firm grasp of the UCLA offense because it's the same one the Raiders run.

But at 5 feet 11 and 189 pounds, his head could barely be seen over the shoulders of the center he was taking snaps from in practice this week, and that could be a problem when it comes time to throw a pass in a Division I game.

UCLA's third-string quarterback will be sophomore walk-on Josh Roenicke, who was converted to wide receiver in college and hasn't played quarterback since his prep days at Grass Valley's Nevada Union High.

At 6-3 and 185 pounds, Roenicke has a little height advantage, and he has some name recognition -- his uncle, Ron Roenicke, is the Angels' third base coach. Roenicke just started taking snaps again Tuesday, however, and three days of practice does not a Division I quarterback make.

"We've been through this a few times last year when Drew and Cory [Paus] both went down with injuries," Bruin receiver Craig Bragg said. "Is it scary? A little bit."

Olson can't play scared though. His goal is to come out of tonight's game like a pitcher who throws a perfect inning: no hits, no runs, no errors.

That being virtually impossible, Olson will go for the next-best thing: Avoid hits. Don't run unless you absolutely have to. And err on the side of caution -- when choosing between an opposing linebacker and the sideline, take the sideline.

"You can't think about getting hurt, you just have to play," said Olson, who completed 13 of 23 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns after relieving Moore late in the first quarter of last week's 16-14 loss at Colorado.

"I don't think I'd be doing the team any favors if I tried to play it safe. When I scramble, I always try to run out of bounds, but if I need to take a hit to get a first down, I will. But I'm not going to try to put my head down and run people over."

Olson and the Bruins have reasons to be optimistic about tonight. Illinois has the typical Big Ten defensive line, a beefy front anchored by tackles Charles Gilstrap (6-3, 290) and Jeff Ruffin (6-4, 295), but the Illini have recorded only four sacks, for 13 yards in losses, in two games, a 22-15 loss to Missouri on Aug. 30 and a 49-22 victory over Illinois State last Saturday.

Illinois is not very strong in the secondary -- the Illini gave up 385 yards passing last week, and Illinois State receiver Dwayne Smith burned them repeatedly, catching 14 passes for a school-record 243 yards and two touchdowns.

"I like the coverages they play," Olson said. "I think this offense will be able to exploit them. They're all zone.... I think we have good athletes who can make some plays against that defense."

What would really boost UCLA's passing game, though, is a running game, an attack that would provide balance to the offense and ease the pressure on Olson.

The Bruins netted 38 yards rushing against Colorado, and Coach Karl Dorrell has vowed to incorporate Manuel White, who didn't touch the ball last week, into an attack that consisted of Tyler Ebell running between the tackles.

"The biggest problem is, we didn't play well together consistently," left tackle Steve Vieira said of the offensive line. "Four of us would do well on one play and one would miss a block, and the play would break down."

The line will need to play better as a unit if Olson is to have a chance to stand and deliver against Illinois. And to remain standing.

"It's our job to protect the quarterback, whether we have four quarterbacks or two," Vieira said. "We feel that way regardless of what else is going on."

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