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UCLA AT NO. 1 OKLAHOMA Today, 12:30 p.m. PDT, Channel

OK Won't Be Good Enough

Bruins might need a near-perfect game to beat the Sooners, but players say it can be done

September 20, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

NORMAN, Okla. — This is what college football is all about, UCLA players have been saying all week, a chance to play the nation's top-ranked team before 80,000 fans and a regional television audience, in the heart of Sooner Nation, on the hallowed ground that is Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium.

"We can make a statement to the nation," linebacker Brandon Chillar said. "There's no better opportunity than this."

An upset of the heavily favored Sooners would send a 50,000-watt jolt through a UCLA program looking to return to national prominence. It would provide a watershed moment for first-year Coach Karl Dorrell and a potential springboard for his staff and the program.

It might even elicit a smile from the seemingly dispassionate Dorrell. Or maybe something totally radical, like a pump of the fist.

"The only thing I think about is it would move us to 2-1," Dorrell said when asked to gauge the significance of a win over the Sooners. "This is a 12-round fight. Each week we're going to put our best team on the field, and if we win, great, we'll enjoy the moment, then move on to the next game. This week is no bigger than any other."

Bruin players aren't buying that. They are keenly aware of what's at stake.

A loss to the Sooners would be no great shame. The Bruins are 19-point underdogs, they are not ranked, and few, with the exception of UCLA players, coaches and immediate family members, think they have a chance.

But an upset of Oklahoma ... now that would be something.

"It would be a huge boost, with us being one game away from Pacific 10 Conference play," Bruin center Mike McCloskey said. "It would make us really, really believe in the program and know that we could play with anyone in the country. It would be a huge morale boost ... not that we really need one, but it wouldn't hurt."

All it would take is a super-human effort from a young and mistake-prone offense that couldn't score a touchdown against a mediocre Big Ten team last week and ranks last among 117 Division I-A teams in total yards, an overwhelming performance from a defense that would be hard-pressed to play better than it did against Colorado and Illinois, and some consistency from special-team units that have been erratic.

In other words, don't count on it.

"We have to raise the bar -- we have to go in there knowing we can't make mistakes against that good a defense," McCloskey said. "That adds pressure on us, but we're the underdogs, we have nothing to lose, they're expected to win. If we play the game right, we have a chance of pulling out the victory."

At the very least, the UCLA defense will be able to see how it stacks up against one of the best units in the country. A Sooner secondary led by cornerback Derrick Strait has had multiple interceptions in 10 of the last 15 games and led the nation with 24 interceptions last season.

A defensive line led by tackle Tommie Harris and a linebacker corps led by Teddy Lehman have helped Oklahoma limit opponents to 14 points or fewer 20 times in the last 54 games. Oklahoma defenders are smart and experienced, fast and aggressive, and they swarm to the ball like paparazzi to Jen and Ben.

"They're hard-working guys, and they all play really fast and strong," UCLA offensive tackle Steve Vieira said. "They live up to their billing."

UCLA's defense, as Vieira likes to say, isn't "chump change" either, and today provides an opportunity for a hungry and aggressive bunch led by Chillar, linemen Dave Ball and Rodney Leisle and cornerback Matt Ware to prove it.

"I think our defense is already that caliber," Dorrell said, comparing UCLA to Oklahoma. "I think we can get better. We want to get better to the point where our defense is able to perform with anyone in the country."

Even if UCLA can match Oklahoma tackle for tackle, interception for interception and sack for sack for long stretches, it will be difficult to completely shut down an Oklahoma offense led by quarterback Jason White, a senior who has completed 69 of 107 passes for 845 yards. He has nine touchdown passes and one interception in three games.

Oklahoma has turned the ball over only once this season. Against Fresno State last week, the Sooners roared to a 38-0 halftime lead, scoring on each of their six first-half possessions, and rolled up 556 yards of offense in a 52-28 victory.

"They're an offense that spreads you out, and a lot of their running game is quick passes," Dorrell said. "They treat a five-yard catch like a five-yard run. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a productive way to run an offense."

To contend, the Bruins need to establish some kind of running game "because their secondary is so good," UCLA quarterback Drew Olson said. "We need to keep the chains moving, establish some drives. We can't go three and out. We have to make plays when they're there, because they won't be there that often."

The first five minutes could be critical. If the Bruins can survive, keep the Sooners off the scoreboard, pick up a few first downs, maintain good field position, not turn the ball over, and not give rabid Oklahoma fans reason to get excited, they could gain a little comfort in a hostile environment and some confidence that they can compete.

"We can't let them gain momentum," UCLA offensive coordinator Steve Axman said. "Their defense is like a snowball. If you allow them to get the momentum, they can easily overrun an opponent."

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