Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince scrambles for yardage against the Cougars… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The "pistol" offense can be effective in the Pacific 10 Conference. Proof came Friday night during Nevada's 52-31 victory over then-No. 24 California.
Quarterback Kevin Prince, sequestered in a hotel with the rest of the UCLA football team, watched that game on television — and took notes.
"[Nevada quarterback] Colin Kaepernick was pulling the ball out and running quite a few times," Prince said. "When we learned the offense, I didn't think the quarterback should be running a lot. But I saw how it helps keep a defense honest."
The next night against Houston, UCLA's "pistol" actually fired a couple of times. Though still only about half cocked — the running improved but the passing game remained inconsistent — there was significant progress.
A week after UCLA was defeated by Stanford, 35-0, Prince — having studied Kaepernick — tried a little now-you-see-it-now-you-don't magic on Houston. He gained 60 yards in 10 carries, Johnathan Franklin ran for a career-high 158 yards and the Bruins (1-2) proved that half an offense was enough against Conference USA talent in a 31-13 victory.
"We knew we couldn't play uptight and nervous," Prince said.
That point was driven home 30 minutes before the kickoff by tight end Cory Harkey, who gathered the offense together for a meeting.
"Cory was adamant about playing for each other and not worrying about what the fans and media were saying," Prince said. "It calmed us down."
Said Franklin: "He said we were a family, not an offense and defense. We had to play like a family."
Franklin became the favorite son.
Although he had averaged 5.5 yards per carry in UCLA's first two games, Franklin had only 24 carries playing behind starter Derrick Coleman. But Coleman suffered a concussion against Stanford, and Franklin took advantage of the opportunity. Against Houston, he carried 26 times for more yards than any UCLA running back had in a game since Chris Markey had 193 against Washington in October 2007.
Last season as a freshman, Franklin had two 100-yard games, but also fumbled eight times, losing three.
"I walked around all spring quarter with a football under my arms everywhere I went," Franklin said. "I'd be walking to class and if one of the guys saw me, they'd try to rip it out. I had a deal with the offensive linemen. If someone took the ball away, I'd do 100 up-downs."
It's worked so far. Franklin has not fumbled this season.
Still, he had limited playing time in the first two games as Coleman started because the coaches felt he was better at pass protection.
The way Franklin runs certainly isn't the problem. With fleet feet and shifty hips, he scored three touchdowns and averaged 6.1 yards a carry against Houston, even though he did not have a run longer than 26 yards.
"He is fast enough to hit open holes and patient enough to wait for them," Prince said. "Then he makes people miss."
Even so, Coach Rick Neuheisel seems wary about giving Franklin too much of a workload, saying, "You have to determine at what level the efficiency starts to diminish." But the coach also admitted: "Some of his best runs were late game."
The running game allowed the Bruins to keep their defense on the sideline long enough to be rested. In opening losses to Kansas State and Stanford, UCLA's defense had been worn down in the second half. Against Houston, however, the Bruins had a five-minute edge in time of possession.
Part of that can be attributed to better work on third down. UCLA was four for 22 on third-down conversions in its first two games. The Bruins were five for six in the first half against Houston.
"All week long we talked about keeping the rhythm going," Prince said.
But while rhythm came to the running game, the passing attack remained stuck in the blues. Prince on Saturday was nine for 17 for 99 yards with one pass intercepted. He took the Bruins on drives of 51, 80 and 42 yards, but, "we left a lot of points on the field," offensive coordinator Norm Chow said.
Chow added: "We had six drives and scored three touchdowns. The other three ended in a dropped pass, a fumble and a pick. That's us."
Neuheisel attributed Prince's 44% completion rate to his throws being "hot."
"I think he's just overthrowing at times," Neuheisel said. "I think he keeps telling himself not to aim his throws, so he's whistling them. I believe it will calm down."
Once that happens, Neuheisel said, the Bruins "pistol" should really have some bang.
"Certainly, we know how the [pistol] offense can work," Neuheisel said. "There is living proof in Reno, Nevada."