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Bruin Offense Needs Balance

September 22, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

UCLA has been striving for more balance on offense, and to that end, Coach Karl Dorrell believes the Bruins made progress in Saturday's 59-24 loss to top-ranked Oklahoma, netting 127 yards rushing and 144 yards passing against one of the nation's best defenses.

But if UCLA is to be anything better than a .500 team, the Bruins need to add a little balance to their playbook and play-calling, mixing in some medium-range passes to go with their quick outs and all-or-nothing bombs and some imagination to go with a running game that has rarely ventured outside the tackles.

As flanker Ryan Smith said after Saturday's loss, "This isn't what the [Denver] Broncos do, that's for sure," and wasn't that the point of Dorrell's new West Coast attack, to stretch defenses with a variety of plays and keep the chains moving with time-consuming drives?

Three games into the season, the 1-2 Bruins seem conflicted, perhaps a little confused, about their offensive personnel, unsure whether to trust sophomore quarterback Drew Olson and expand his repertoire and unsure how to best utilize their backfield weapons.

Whether it's Dorrell providing the parameters for offensive coordinator Steve Axman or Axman calling his own plays, the Bruins seem far more conservative than most expected.

One possession in the second quarter Saturday provided an example. The Bruins drove 50 yards in 14 plays in the first quarter, with tailback Manuel White consuming 24 yards on the ground and Justin Medlock kicking a 48-yard field goal to cut the Sooner lead to 7-3.

UCLA seized momentum and a 10-7 lead on White's 11-yard touchdown run at the end of the first quarter, but Oklahoma stormed back on Jason White's 12-yard touchdown pass to Travis Wilson and Antonio Perkins' 74-yard punt return for a touchdown to take a 21-10 lead early in the second.

The Bruins got the ball back on their 20-yard line with a chance to counter-punch, and though Perkins' return -- the first of his NCAA record three punt-return touchdowns and 277 return yards -- was a huge blow, UCLA seemed flush with confidence by the way it was able to move the ball and protect the quarterback in the first quarter.

So what do the Bruins do on the crucial possession?

Send Tyler Ebell up the middle for a one-yard gain on first down and White into the teeth of the Oklahoma front four for a one-yard loss on second down.

That creates a third-and-10 play on which Olson is sacked for a 10-yard loss. UCLA punts and never comes as close as 11 points to Oklahoma the rest of the day.

It seemed the perfect time for the Bruins to assume a what-have-we-got-to-lose mentality, to open up the offense with a play-action or roll-out pass on first down and put the Sooners back on their heels, but Axman and Dorrell went ultra-conservative.

While players have maintained faith in the West Coast offense -- they still believe lack of execution, not a lack of effective play-calling, is their biggest problem -- there is a growing sense that some are at least a little perplexed by the approach.

For instance, Ebell is a quick back who rushed for 994 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, but at 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, he doesn't excel in high-traffic areas.

Yet, the Bruins have done little, short of an occasional draw, to provide more of an open-field start for Ebell in three games, instead running him off tackle time after time with almost predictable results: Ebell goes down at first contact.

To Axman's credit, he has tried to free Ebell with a couple of swing passes in the flat, but Ebell has dropped most of those.

The 6-3, 236-pound White is a bruising back who has had success running up the middle, and the Bruins have done well incorporating him into the offense -- White has responded with 168 yards rushing in the last two games.

Yet somehow White, who is emerging as UCLA's best offensive weapon, did not touch the ball in the season-opening 16-14 loss at Colorado, a situation Dorrell quickly rectified after much howling by Bruin boosters and the media.

The passing game has been a little choppy too, with the Bruins either throwing quick outs for short gains or going long for the big play, with little in between.

Olson hasn't thrown much over the middle, receivers have had little success finding seams in zone coverage 15 yards down field, and Smith, supposedly the team's best "possession" receiver, has caught only six passes for 54 yards.


Already thin at tight end because of an injury that has sidelined Keith Carter for the first three games, UCLA could take two more hits at the position for Saturday night's game against San Diego State in the Rose Bowl.

Marcedes Lewis suffered a mild left shoulder injury and Blane Kezirian suffered a mild high left ankle sprain against Oklahoma, and both are listed as doubtful for the San Diego State game.

Reserve defensive end Asi Faoa, who suffered a left high ankle sprain, and reserve fullback Pat Norton, who suffered a high right ankle sprain, will not play against the Aztecs, and reserve linebacker Tim Warfield, who sprained his right ankle, is questionable.

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