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Time for UCLA to show a spike in learning curve

The Bruins can take a major step forward with a convincing victory over a troubled Utah team.

September 15, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- There is much to be gained from today's game between UCLA and Utah.

Beating a team considered to be on a different level. Taking a step forward in a quest for a long-coveted Bowl Championship Series bowl bid. Carving out some respect among your peers.

Oh, and the Utah players probably have a to-do list as well.

The things the UCLA football team covets, the Utes have already achieved . . . in 2004. They were the Mountain West Conference team that climbed Everest, the first "little" school to defy the BCS odds -- and gods. The reward was the Fiesta Bowl, where they pummeled Pittsburgh to finish undefeated and ranked fourth in the final Associated Press poll.

Achievements to envy in the eyes of the Bruins, who have not reached a major bowl since losing to Wisconsin in the 1998 Rose Bowl game. In fact, their last win in what have become the BCS A-list bowls was against Iowa in the 1985 Rose Bowl, when a junior wide receiver named Karl Dorrell was running passing routes instead of the program.

So this is an opportunity for 11th-ranked Bruins to ask a few Utah players what a red-carpet bowl game is like. Or maybe it's a chance to push on toward their own Klieg-light-and-paparazzi night in January.

"If we're the team everybody thinks we are, and that we think we can be, this is a game we should win," Bruins cornerback Rodney Van said. "I'm not saying we should win big. I'm not saying it should be a blowout. But this is a game you should take care of. In the back of your mind, you know and everybody knows this is a game we should win."

Still, Van is cautious, as "there are intangibles in it. We're on the road, they're riding high on emotions, they feel they can do anything."

The Utes could . . . in 2004. Things have changed.

Quarterback Alex Smith hangs his helmet in the Bay Area these days, where he's trying to make the San Francisco 49ers what they were once upon a time. Coach Urban Meyer is still basking in the swamp glow after proving to be anything but an urban legend by leading Florida to the BCS national title.

What remains in Salt Lake City are nine players who were on that 2004 roster, third-year Coach Kyle Whittingham -- then Meyer's defensive coordinator -- and possibly the most dangerous offensive players in any college football trainer's room.

The Utes are 0-2 for the first time since 2000. That would look a whole lot worse had triage not become part of Whittingham's weekly routine. Utah lost quarterback Brian Johnson to a separated shoulder in the first half of its first game. Among those who have joined him on the sideline: Matt Asiata, the Utes' best running back; Brent Casteel, their best receiver; Jason Boone, their best offensive lineman; and receiver A.J. Reilly.

The upside? The Utes' six-game winning streak in bowl games is probably safe. They are unlikely to reach one, even the level of bowl game UCLA has grown accustomed to -- Emerald, Las Vegas, Sun, etc.

Basically, Utah is Exhibit A of why BCS success is difficult to sustain for the non-BCS crowd.

"We had a couple of decent years post-Fiesta Bowl, but for a non-BCS school to repeatedly be at that level is a tall order," said Whittingham, whose teams were 7-5 and 8-5 the last two seasons.

"The reality is, at a Southeastern Conference or Pac-10 school, you have two or three blue-chip players at every position. In the Mountain West, your first 22 [players] are very good, but it is the depth that makes it difficult. You lose a couple key guys and it hurts."

With Johnson out, the Utes' spread offense should be less of a headache. Tommy Grady, the 6-foot-7 senior who replaced Johnson, is not as mobile and injuries have robbed him of his best offensive weapons.

"We had aspirations, then we lost a big chunk of our offense," Whittingham said.

Whittingham doesn't have to tell the Bruins about high aspirations. They began the season in nosebleed territory.

So the Bruins can convince skeptics by shaking the offense out of its one-game slump, tightening up the defense and giving Utah the royal BCS conference treatment -- the Oklahoma (North Texas), not Michigan (Appalachian State) version.

Dorrell has done what he can to douse overconfidence -- "They have a pretty good track record against Pac-10 teams in their stadium," Dorrell said.

It's a cautionary tale that players seem to be heeding.

"This is a very physical team and this going to be as physical as a Pac-10 game," guard Shannon Tevaga said. "In order for us to get to our goal [of a Pac-10 title], we have to take each step, especially after going into conference after this."

Still, reaching that goal means one thing this week.

"Taking care of business," Van said. "No matter what they throw at you, you should be able to get it done and beat this team. That's not to disrespect Utah at all, it's just we feel we are the better team in this situation and we should get the victory."


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