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Bruins Outgrow Terrible Twos

Behind Olson, Drew and Lewis, UCLA has one of the top offenses in the nation, quite a turnaround since Dorrell took over as coach in 2003.

December 01, 2005|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Two years.

That's how long it has taken UCLA to climb from the bottom of the Pacific 10 Conference -- and near the bottom in the nation -- to boast one of the most potent offenses in college football.

In 2003, Coach Karl Dorrell's first season, the Bruins were next to last in the Pac-10 with an average of 294.9 yards a game and picked up only 2.6 yards per running play, giving them one of the most anemic rushing attacks in major-college football.

Dorrell said he was implementing the same West Coast offense he learned in 15 years as an assistant at the college and pro level, including three seasons with the Denver Broncos under Coach Mike Shanahan.

It's just that the way the Bruins were running it made it nearly unrecognizable.

"I knew that it was going to be an adjustment," said Dorrell, who preached patience. "When you throw in a whole new system, everyone from seniors to freshmen has to go through a learning stage."

Given some time on those lessons, the Bruins are now passing (and running too) with flying colors.

Led by three players who started but struggled through growing pains in 2003 -- quarterback Drew Olson, running back Maurice Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis -- UCLA is averaging 40 points, fifth-best in the nation, and averaging 444.4 yards, including 148.9 rushing.

Those statistics compare well with the Bruins' 1998 team, which finished 10-2 and was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation. Led by quarterback Cade McNown, the most prolific UCLA offense in school history averaged 39.7 points and a school-record 487.3 yards.

Although there have been times this season when UCLA's offense has struggled, it hasn't happened often. And when the Bruins do hit stride, they've been hard to stop. Four times they have rallied to win after trailing by double digits late in games, and their 63 points against Rice was the most in a game since 1997.

"UCLA does a great job of making plays all over the field," California Coach Jeff Tedford said after the Bruins outscored the Golden Bears, 47-40, in October. "You have to give them credit."

UCLA isn't finished tinkering either.

"We're not there yet, and that's what is so scary to me," Dorrell said. "We have a chance to do some special things in the next stage of our development. We made great progress last year, but our passing game really wasn't where it needed to be. This year, we have a pretty good passing game with some good experience.

"We're starting to utilize guys in certain areas that work. We're going to keep evolving."

When former Stanford and San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh developed the West Coast offense, he featured short pass plays to control the ball and stuck with a philosophy of taking what a defense gives you. But for it to work, a team needs a quarterback who can make quick decisions and accurate throws.

Olson has done that this year. He leads the nation in pass efficiency with a 172.5 rating, and has a school-record 30 touchdown passes with only three interceptions -- compared with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine starts two years ago.

"The first year, we didn't run it anywhere near like the way we've run it the last two years," Olson said. "It's the type of offense where once you learn it and everybody is on the same page, it's a lot of fun.

"It's become second nature for us. There's a comfort level. The first year, we basically just learned how to call plays and the base stuff. There are some plays that we run now that we ran in the first year, but everything is so different now."

Jon Embree, the Bruins' assistant head coach and tight ends coach, said the turning point came last season in UCLA's 34-26 win at Oregon.

"That was a breakthrough game for us, because that's when I knew Drew [Olson] had figured it out," Embree said. "And the play that made me believe that was a pass he completed to Junior Taylor [for an 83-yard touchdown]. He hit him on a slant route when they blitzed from back side. They did a real good job of disguising it, and Drew still made the play."

Adding dimension to UCLA's version of the offense are running back Drew, who seemingly can turn any play into a touchdown, and Lewis, a finalist for the second consecutive season for the John Mackey Award, given each year to the top tight end in the nation.

"In this offense you don't really need the greatest receivers ever to make plays," Olson said. "You just need smart players who run good routes. When things get covered, you can check down and get the ball to your running back.

"When you have a Maurice and when you have a Marcedes, it's like an added bonus."

Strengthening UCLA's attack, coordinator and line coach Tom Cable came in two years ago and added power to the running game.

By putting together a physical line with more mobility, Cable has helped the Bruins grow into a balanced, dual threat. UCLA has 353 rushing attempts and 333 passes.

Drew said UCLA's running game, which is averaging 4.2 yards a carry, is just starting to realize its potential.

"Most high school backs only know how to run downhill, straight ahead," Drew said. "That's tough to break. I didn't know anything about stretch plays and being patient.

"We should be rushing for at least 200 yards per game. As a running back, we're still missing our reads at times. But I know how much better we are now compared to even last year, and that's why I know how good we can be next year."

The Bruins figure that if they can improve this much in two years, their prospects are bright. Even with seniors Olson and Lewis leaving, UCLA has players waiting their turn, including redshirt freshman Ben Olson at quarterback.

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