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Through four games, UCLA has been disarmed

The Bruins are averaging just 82 passing yards a game, and the likelihood of them airing it out against Washington State might depend on the health of quarterback Kevin Prince.

September 30, 2010|By Chris Foster

Norm Chow, UCLA's offensive coordinator, has coached three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks. And Ty Detmer, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart didn't come home with the hardware because they were good at handing off.

So when the Bruins passed for a meager 27 yards in beating Texas last Saturday, it was certainly out of the, uh, Norm.

"My son ran into [ New Orleans Saints' Coach] Sean Payton this week and he said, 'Tell your dad he's out of the passing club,' " Chow said, laughing.

The opportunity to reapply for membership arrives Saturday.

UCLA faces a Washington State team that ranks 116th out of 120 teams nationally in pass defense, giving up 286 yards per game. If ever there was a good time to shake the cobwebs out of the passing game, it's against the 1-3 Cougars.

The only hitch — and it could be a big one — is that quarterback Kevin Prince has an injured right knee that kept him out of practice this week. If he can't play, that could leave the Bruins grounded again.

UCLA (2-2) has passed for fewer than 100 yards in three games.

At some point, though, footballs are going to have to fly.

"We know how competitive the Pac-10 conference is, and you have to throw to have any measure of success," Coach Rick Neuheisel said.

The Bruins' consecutive wins against nationally ranked opponents — Houston before Texas — came because UCLA was able to run for more than 260 yards in each of those games. After a sluggish start in losses to Kansas State and Stanford, the Bruins are 20th in the nation in rushing.

"It's a little different for me," Chow said. "But winning never gets old."

Even if runs … and more runs … are counter to his traditional philosophy?

"I don't have a reputation," Chow said. "All I care about is winning."

Neuheisel has changed his spots as well.

Colorado, under his direction, averaged a school-record 303 yards passing in 1996. Washington, with Neuheisel as coach, passed 621 times and for 4,458 yards in 2002. Both are school records.

UCLA ranks last nationally with a 79.57 passing efficiency, and Prince's 81.81 rating doesn't place him in the top 100. With an average of 82 passing yards a game, the Bruins rank below Navy and Air Force, both pure triple-option teams.

That has Neuheisel struggling against his nature, though he says, "You don't force the issue of throwing the ball because it's your background. I love to throw, that is my instinct. Losing causes you to look in the mirror and see what needs to be changed."

Re-entering conference play this week seemed the cue to take the training wheels off the passing game. But Prince's injury against Texas may derail those plans.

An MRI exam revealed no structural damage, according to Neuheisel, but the swelling required the knee to be drained Sunday. The team had Monday off, and Prince didn't practice Tuesday or Wednesday.

Sophomore Richard Brehaut would make his first college start if Prince is unable to play. If that happens, the Bruins could always turn back to their running game, which is averaging 218 yards. Washington State is only slightly better against the run than the pass, giving up 209 yards per game.

"It's a game where you want to get guys some opportunities in the throwing game," Chow said. "[But] we're going to have to win the game, and we'll do whatever it takes to win the game."

The success UCLA has had running the ball isn't the only reason the Bruins might be wary about turning to the pass. Protection for Prince has been spotty. Twice against Texas, he fumbled when sacked.

Prince has also been wild with throws, though his 46% completion percentage would be significantly higher without numerous dropped passes.

"I think Kevin throws the ball enough in practice that he feels comfortable doing it," Chow said. "I don't know if his confidence in the throwing game is waning. I think his confidence is blossoming because he realizes he is a leader on this team."

Prince has more touchdowns running (three) than passing (two). That includes a 38-yard scoring run against Texas and, he noted, "a 38-yard touchdown run counts the same as a 38-yard touchdown pass."

Besides, Prince said, "The more success we have with the run, the more teams are going play against it. That will give us more chances to throw the ball. That's when we'll start to balance things out."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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