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A signal moment for quarterbacks

October 06, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The main plot lines heading into today's UCLA-Notre Dame game at the Rose Bowl:

Are the Fighting Irish really as bad as their 0-5 record?

Will it matter against a UCLA team that has already proved (remember Utah?) it can sink to rarefied depths?

The answers may be determined by the main players in the game's most interesting subplot: Today's quarterbacks are sure to give the Sunday-morning armchair variety plenty to pick over.

Past, present and future examples of lofty expectations converge, it seems, behind the center -- no matter who is on offense.

"The quarterback always takes a lot of heat, warranted or not," former UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey said. "That comes with playing the position. But if you ask any quarterback if he'd rather be playing right guard, they'd universally say, 'No.' "

So, from the you-asked-for-it files . . .

Jimmy Clausen -- provided his hip is healthy -- will lead the Fighting Irish offense, which, it can be argued, is about as close as it gets to being at the center of the college football universe. Heady stuff for the freshman from Westlake Village Oaks Christian High. But is he alone in the pressure? Not really.

Clausen can look across the field today and see the "left-handed John Elway" -- or so UCLA quarterback Ben Olson was dubbed in high school.

Olson seems to have come to terms with the mile-high pile of expectations for him, understanding that the Bruins' Pacific 10 Conference title hopes seem to hang on his every throw. But is he alone in that pressure? Not really.

Olson can look across the field today and there will be Ron Powlus, Clausen's position coach.

Powlus, you might recall, was supposed to win two Heisman trophies when he signed on to play quarterback at Notre Dame -- or so went one over-the-top prediction. (He didn't win any.)

"Sure there were high expectations, sure things were said," Powlus said before this season, recalling the start of his own college career. "But that is life as the Notre Dame quarterback. You're in the spotlight. People get to say what they want to say. Opinions come and go. That's life in this position."

A life that is in Powlus' rearview mirror but is the road ahead for Clausen.

And Olson? He's smack-dab at that intersection -- still with high hopes for this season, but also with the benefit of hindsight gained by experience.

"I understand the whole thing is about winning," Olson said. "You can't get caught up in stats, what you did or what people say. As long as you come away with a victory, that's the most important thing."

Olson peeked out from beneath the weight of his world against Oregon State last week. Or so the Bruins (4-1) hope. A third-quarter interception by the Beavers, with the Bruins down, 14-12, is pitched as a defining moment by UCLA coaches. Olson threw for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a 40-14 victory, his first touchdown passes since the season opener.

"When you're trying to do things so well and you make a mistake, it kind of lingers for a little bit. But it didn't," UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. "That showed a lot of growth."

The Bruins' hierarchy has to believe that, as Olson remains the cornerstone of what UCLA hopes to build into a championship season.

"I've played football enough to realize that you take the wins any way you can get them," Olson said. "I'm just trying to show my teammates they can count on me to make clutch plays."

Of course, Olson has been trying to prove his worth since leaving Thousand Oaks High, where the Elway comparison was attached.

Said Dorrell: "We want him to create his own niche for himself."

Clausen is just beginning that journey, though it has been a turbulent one so far.

The Irish average 30 yards rushing a game, ranking last among 119 major-college teams. They have allowed 29 sacks, the most in the nation.

So, with no running game and leaky pass protection, Clausen has been a piata. He suffered a hip injury against Purdue last week, but will start, Coach Charlie Weis said, if he is healthy.

Clausen's predicament looks tough even to those who would like to see him lose today.

"I started a couple games as a freshman, and the reality is you're not comfortable," Ramsey said. "Playing college football is tough. Playing quarterback in college football is even tougher."

Ramsey lived that, and saw that, in the shadow of the right-handed Elway. He was a senior at Kennedy High when Elway was a senior at Granada Hills High across town.

Ramsey, though, accomplished something that eluded Elway at Stanford. He led a team to the Rose Bowl and was MVP in the 1983 game.

Ramsey, now a media consultant for the Mountain West Conference, said he learned this from that Rose Bowl experience:

"I don't remember my stats from that day, I remember we won. If you win, no one will remember your stats three weeks later."

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Times staff writer Chris Dufresne contributed to this report.

chris.foster@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

KEYS TO THE GAME

UCLA (4-1) vs. Notre Dame (0-5)

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