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UCLA is not even run of the mill

Bruins average 19 yards rushing, worst in the nation. Neuheisel says a good ground game is vital, but right now he'd settle for mediocre.

September 20, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The leather-helmet notion of "three yards and a cloud of dust" must seem like a high-tech philosophy to UCLA football coaches at this point.

Three yards? In one carry? Imagine that!

When all you have managed is 0.8-yards-and-a-big-bust, the grass does tend to look greener on the other side of scrimmage.

The Bruins have been running in place for two games now. They rank last among the nation's 119 major-college teams, averaging 19 yards a game. The grim fact is, there are 29 players in the Pacific 10 Conference who have more net yards rushing than the Bruins' 38 as a team.

This has been the severe glitch in a plan to win through attrition. Keeping the score "manageable into the fourth quarter" is Coach Rick Neuheisel's mandate this season.

"You have to have a running game to do that," Neuheisel said. "You have to get first downs with it."

The offensive line, which will be Exhibit A in judging UCLA's 2006 recruiting class, has received the brunt of the criticism. But everyone has pleaded mea culpa. The solution, coaches say, will take time -- possibly beyond this season.

Asked whether UCLA can have a dominant running game, Neuheisel said, "I think it will take baby steps. Let's get to an average running game first. Then we'll think about a good one, then we'll move on to the great. We've got to get to that average place first."

View from the trenches

UCLA took over on its eight-yard line during its opener against Tennessee, trailing, 14-10. The game seemed at the time to hinge on field position. The Bruins needed to grind out a few first downs.

Chane Moline lost four yards on the first play. Raymond Carter barely avoided a safety, losing three more on the next play. After an offside penalty on Tennessee, Carter lost two more.

Three plays, all backward -- among eight tackles for losses Tennessee made against the Bruins.

"What it has been to this point is there is always one guy who is making a mental mistake or not using proper technique," tackle Nick Ekbatani said. "His guy is making the play. It seems like there are four guys on the right body and we have one going to the wrong guy."

That it seems to be a different guy each time calls into question UCLA's much-ballyhooed recruiting class of 2006, which included seven offensive linemen -- Ekbatani, Brandon Bennett, Jake Dean, Andy Keane, Micah Kia, Sean Sheller and Sonny Tevaga.

SuperPrep Magazine rated that class of linemen sixth in the nation.

Sheller, a projected starter, suffered a knee injury in an all-terrain vehicle accident this summer. The rest?

"It's been a bit of a disappointment, that's the bottom line," said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com. "That was viewed as a recruiting class that was going to give UCLA a leg up in the trenches."

Instead, the Bruins keep digging deep holes.

Said Ekbatani: "I believe when it comes to game time, guys try to act like Superman and try to do something special. We just need to block. Don't fall down. That's our story right now, don't fall down.

"If we can just keep our feet moving, get our hands inside, block the right guy, we will improve."

View from the backfield

Kahlil Bell suffered a sprained ankle in the third offensive series against Tennessee, leaving the Bruins without their most experienced running back. Bell gained 795 yards last season.

In stepped Moline, then Carter. Moline, who has averaged 3.4 yards per carry in his career, had five yards in six carries against Tennessee. Carter, a redshirt freshman coming off knee surgery, was the team's leading rusher with 14 yards in 15 carries that game.

"We can't just blame the offensive line," Carter said. "The running backs have to do their part. We have to make our reads and make adjustments."

The coaching staff has also tried to make a couple.

Aundre Dean, a highly touted freshman, was sent into the Brigham Young game last week. He carried once for no gain and suffered a sprained ankle in UCLA's 59-0 loss.

Against Arizona today, Derrick Coleman, a 218-pound freshman, probably will get carries if Bell cannot play. Coleman gives the Bruins a big back who can gain yards after being hit.

"College football is a fast game," Carter said. "Holes open fast and they close fast. We have to do a better job of hitting them hard."

View from the sideline

Offensive line coach Bob Palcic knows what he's looking for after 30 years of forging lines, with a resume that includes Outland Trophy winners and Pro Football Hall of Famers. To run the ball effectively, Palcic said, "you have to have [linemen with] quick feet and lower-body strength. I need linemen who are smart, tough and have good feet. If you're lacking any of those, then you have a problem."

Palcic said that first-year strength coach Mike Linn has "revamped our strength program. He hasn't been here long enough for tremendous results, but it's going in the right direction."

Whether current linemen will be along for that journey remains to be seen.

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