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Can't Stop a Special Team

Sooners' Perkins sets punt return records with three touchdowns and 277 yards, and other Bruin breakdowns contribute to rout.

September 21, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

NORMAN, Okla. — How many times do you have to put your finger over the stove before you realize that flame is kind of hot?

The answer never seemed to come to the UCLA football team, which played with fire by punting to Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins on Saturday and was burned repeatedly in a 59-24 loss to the top-ranked Sooners before 83,317 in Memorial Stadium.

Perkins returned seven punts for 277 yards and three touchdowns, shattering the 32-year-old NCAA single-game punt return yardage record of 219, set by Brigham Young's Golden Richards in 1971, and breaking the NCAA record for punt returns for touchdowns in a game.

Throw in another UCLA interception that was returned for a touchdown, a Bruin fumble that gave the Sooners an easy touchdown, and another UCLA interception that led to an Oklahoma field goal, and it added up to the most points the Bruins had given up in a game since a 61-20 loss to Washington on Nov. 14, 1970, and more points than UCLA allowed in the entire 1952 season (55).

"Special teams just killed us today," UCLA flanker Ryan Smith said. "You can't do that against a No. 1 team and expect to win. In a sense, it shows us where we could be. You look at those mishaps, and without them, we're right there with one of the best teams in the country.

"I wasn't that impressed with Oklahoma. ... We've played tough teams before and hung with them, but [Oklahoma] knows how to win. They know how to finish teams off."

The unranked Bruins (1-2) had visions of an upset when they took a 10-7 first-quarter lead on Manuel White's 11-yard touchdown run, an advantage so stunning that when the gun sounded to mark the end of the period, the stadium public address announcer stuttered as he said, "UCLA t-t-ten, Oklahoma seven."

Then Perkins began stutter-stepping his way into college football's record book, returning a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with 10:14 left in the second quarter and another 84 yards for a touchdown with 4:17 left in the second, giving the Sooners (4-0) a 28-10 lead.

On the first score, UCLA's Keith Short was about two yards away from Perkins when he caught the ball, but Perkins' spin move left Short grasping at air, Perkins burst through the middle and then down the left sideline for the score.

UCLA seemed to wise up after the second return, realizing that punting to Perkins was like pitching to Barry Bonds with runners on second and third in the late innings of a close game. Why mess with the guy?

Bruin punter Chris Kluwe booted one punt out of bounds just before halftime, and late in the third quarter, UCLA's Mil'Von James tackled Perkins before he could catch the ball, a 15-yard penalty that, in UCLA's eyes, probably beat the alternative.

But with orders to essentially kick the ball out of bounds -- UCLA coaches called it "directional kicking" -- and Perkins five yards away from the NCAA record, Kluwe inexplicably punted to Perkins late in the fourth quarter.

Perkins caught the ball at his own 35-yard line and raced 65 yards virtually untouched -- much as he did on his first two touchdown returns -- to cap Oklahoma's scoring and an afternoon the junior from Lawton, Okla., will remember for a lifetime.

To put Perkins' day in perspective, he had more return yards than UCLA had total yards (271) and set school single-game records for punt return yards and punts returned for touchdowns in the first half.

"I figured they wouldn't kick it to me again, so I was surprised when they did [in the fourth quarter]," Perkins said. "I was glad they did. I took advantage of it. The blockers pretty much made every one of [the returns] easy."

UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said Kluwe caused one unexpected problem by "out-kicking the coverage," meaning Kluwe's punts traveled so far (he averaged 49 yards on nine punts), Perkins had a 15-yard cushion between him and the closest defender when he fielded the ball.

But the Bruins compounded their problems by doing a poor job of filling lanes and fighting off Oklahoma blocks.

"You have to give them credit, but it comes down to coaching, to down-field coverage, and we've got to work on it and improve," said Brian Schneider, a UCLA assistant coach who handles the punt team. "We weren't getting off blocks and running down the field, and he caught the ball with a lot of room....

"We tried to point out to the players that this would be a major key in the game, and we obviously fell short in that area. We'll evaluate everyone and coach it better. It hits home with me. Hopefully it hits home with them."

The last punt apparently hit Kluwe on the wrong part of the foot.

"It wasn't quite where I wanted it to go," Kluwe said. "It came off my foot wrong. I was trying to get it to the side.... It was depressing after seeing the first two [touchdowns]. I didn't need to see that happen a third time. Oh, well ... "

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