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Payback Time?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

UCLA's Clark says he has learned from his mistakes in last season's USC game

December 02, 2004|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

For the last 54 weeks, UCLA senior cornerback Matt Clark has quietly awaited a chance to redeem himself against USC after being abused by receiver Mike Williams in a lopsided Trojan victory at the Coliseum.

Clark spent a frustrating afternoon trying to defend against Williams, who, with his eight-inch height advantage, finished with 11 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Then Clark had to watch himself getting beat on highlight clips that never seemed to end.

"I know a lot of people remember me from that game and I look at this year's as a personal challenge," Clark said of Saturday's game between USC and UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

"I grew up a huge fan of this rivalry and always wanted to go to UCLA. I feel like I owe [USC] something back. I wish Mike was playing this year, because if you look at the plays he made, I was right there. I just didn't make a play on the ball, which was my problem all last year."

That hasn't been the case this season. The 5-foot-9 Clark has two interceptions, a team-leading 11 pass breakups and 42 tackles. He was chosen first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference.

"He's had a pretty solid season, where he's been really consistent," Coach Karl Dorrell said. "He's really played well and covered well the whole season."

Although he will not face Williams this year, Clark says he expects a big challenge from the Trojan wide receivers, especially 6-5 freshman Dwayne Jarrett and speedy Steve Smith.

"I've learned from my mistakes from last year," Clark said. "The biggest thing for me now is that I'm not afraid to turn my head around and make a play. I'm confident against anyone that I go up against."

Clark was not expected to play his first season at UCLA after a career as a standout running back and defensive back at Reseda Cleveland High. But after the Bruins' secondary was hit by early-season injuries, Clark was suddenly needed. He was one of only three freshmen who didn't redshirt, appearing in 10 of 11 games in 2001.

"The coaches may have liked me as a playmaker out of high school, but they really did not have me penciled in to play anywhere," said Clark, who returned four kickoffs for 108 yards in 2001. "That's how I felt coming in. But my freshman year, I proved a lot of people wrong."

Although Clark got most of his minutes in nickel-and-dime coverages and special teams, he gained a reputation as a smallish cornerback who packed a big punch.

"When Matt first got here, the first thing you noticed was that he was really fast," said senior wide receiver Tab Perry, a sophomore when Clark arrived on campus. "He was real aggressive and wasn't timid at all.

"He pretty much was [current Carolina Panther] Ricky Manning Jr.'s protege. They both were small, tough guys. Wherever Rick went, Matt was right there. You could see how he was picking up stuff from Rick all of the time."

After another year as a backup in 2002, Clark beat out Marcus Cassel for the starting cornerback job opposite his cousin Matt Ware last season. Clark worked hard to impress the coaches and his tenacity paid off -- he started all 12 games.

"I'm always competing, so starting the season having to prove myself again to the new coaches was nothing new," Clark said. "I had confidence in myself that I would be in there."

Clark's best game might have been his first start, against Colorado in the season opener. He played excellent pass defense and finished with eight tackles, seven unassisted.

By the end of the season, Clark was seventh on the team in tackles and had become a steady cover man. Then came Mike Williams and the USC game.

*

It's early in the fourth quarter and California has a two-touchdown lead over the Bruins in a key Pacific 10 Conference game last month at Memorial Stadium. The Bears' Geoff McArthur catches a short pass from Aaron Rodgers deep in Cal territory, avoids UCLA freshman Rodney Van and has a clear path to the end zone.

From the other side of the field, Clark gives chase and, despite a poor angle, catches McArthur near the goal line. Despite his effort, Clark's tackle does not prevent a touchdown, but the play speaks volumes about his character.

Credit his father, Matthew, and the parachute drills.

"Since I started competing in sports, my dad has always been on me, helping me improve," Clark said. "He would work with me on my speed even when I was in Pop Warner. He would take me to parks, high schools, any place where there was open grass.

"The thing with my father was that he always was willing to try new things to help me get faster. He would take me out to a park with a parachute tied to my back.... He really pushed me and I love him for that. I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for him."

The senior Clark was a baseball standout at San Fernando High whose athletic career did not advance beyond a brief stint at Pierce College.

Clark made sure his son didn't waste any opportunities.

"Matthew is my idol -- I've seen myself in him even when he was at an early age," the senior Clark said. "He excited me then, just as he does now.

"My biggest thrill was the first handoff that he ever took when he was 7. He got the ball and ran straight at me, standing on the sideline. I kept yelling for him to turn up but he kept coming at me. Then at the last second, when he was two feet from the sideline, he finally turned. He ran all the way for a touchdown. That's the moment that I will always remember."

And the parachute?

"We started when he was 12, but he's never really gotten into it," Clark's father said. "It's a very strenuous workout. It helps your turnover speed. He was hard-headed about it and has always used it the way he wants to use it and in my opinion that's not enough."

Clark, who hopes to play in the NFL next year, says he'll add more of his father's workouts next summer. For now, though, he's focused on showing USC his best game.

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