For the Beavers, this season has been akin to the trials of Hercules so far. The first was facing Boise State's dual-threat dynamo Jared Zabransky, the second was facing the stratospheric-level passing attacks of Louisville and Arizona State (though these two games felt more like the trials of Job), the third was facing a balanced offense with the Pac 10's leading rusher and a stable of talented receivers with Washington State, and the fourth being a showdown with the Pac 10's most powerful rushing attack in top 25 ranked California.
This week brings an entirely different type of challenge: Stop the Swiss-Army Knife of Pac-10 players, Mr. All Over the Field Heisman Candidate, Maurice Drew. Stopping Drew will be like killing the Hydra...so many heads, so little time.
It's difficult to quantify just what Drew does for the Bruins. His running statistics aren't eye-popping, averaging 80 yards per game. But make no mistake, Drew is special. A good place to start is Drew's ridiculous NCAA leading 30.7 yards per return punt average and his 174.8 all-purpose yard average. He can score about as many different ways on the field as you can imagine, rushing for three touchdowns, catching one pass for a touchdown, and returning one punt for a touchdown against Cal two weeks ago. UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said the most impressive thing about Drew is his speed and balance.
"I have seen him spin out of tackles where nobody knew where he was...and then he's running down the sideline," Dorrell said.
Stopping the run will again be a focus for the Oregon State defense, but caution must not be taken to give UCLA quarterback Drew Olson too much time to throw. The senior is putting together a stellar season, only ranking behind USC's Matt Leinart in terms of passing efficiency in the Pac-10 with a rating of 157.5, with 15 touchdowns and only three picks to go with connecting on 67.2% of his passes. His leadership and accuracy are allowing UCLA to be balanced, capable of beating teams with running back Maurice Drew or with the pass-catching skills of tight end Marcedes Lewis and emerging wide receiver Marcus Everett.
Lewis will be Olson's primary pass-catching target and is a big reason for UCLA's effectiveness in the red-zone. If containing Drew is Job 1 for the defense, then stopping Lewis is Job 1a. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound senior with soft hands and incredible athleticism leads all Bruin receivers with 28 receptions for 368 yards and four scores on the season.
Oregon State linebacker Keith Ellison was the hero of last week's game against Cal, and he will be asked to make a big impact this week as well. UCLA will need to know where #4 is at all times – the senior is a guided missile who wreaks havoc from all angles on the field. As coach Riley said, "He is bar none the best outside linebacker in the Pac 10." Hard nosed sophomore Andy Darkins will also be asked to bring his lunch-pail like attitude and make plays as well.
Oregon State's secondary has really come of age since the whistle blew to start the second half of the Washington State game and a big part of that has been freshman corner Brandon Hughes. The 5-11, 175-pound athlete has sprinter's speed and has been surprisingly effective since taking over the starting job at right corner. True freshman Al Afalava has stepped into the starting lineup and instantly made his presence known, making big plays and backing up his reputation as a hitter. Afalava and star safety Sabby Piscatelli have been outstanding since the corners began performing as they have been allowed to roam the field and make plays.
Also a key in this week's match up will be another hero of the Cal game - Oregon State punter Sam Paulescu. Special teams will be very important against the Bruins, and Paulescu's directional punting skills and stellar hang time will be key in keeping Drew from breaking loose, as will punt team gunners Gerard Lawson and Patrick Fuller.
Offensively, Oregon State has dared to dream the impossible dream with a running game that has risen from the ashes of the post-Steven Jackson era and the Phoenix has a name: Yvenson Bernard. The 5- foot-9, 208-pound sophomore broke out with a shocking 194-yard performance against Cal last week at Memorial Stadium. Bernard's vision and tough-running style combined with his durability (as evidenced by his 42 carry performance against the Bears) have given Oregon State a balance on offense the Beavers haven't enjoyed since another dreadlocked running back graced the backfield for the boys in orange and black. Coach Riley said, "Bit by bit we've improved, and one little sign of it coming along is our not taking many losses in the running game. We used to not only not gain yards, but get hit in the backfield."
The number one goal for UCLA will be to contain Mike Hass, Oregon State's All-World Wide Receiver. Going into the contest against Cal, Hass was carrying a nine game streak of 100 yard games. Bracketed with a linebacker, shaded with a safety, and manned-up by All-American Daymeion Hughes, Hass was held to just four catches and 17 yards against California. Don't expect Hass to get shut down by UCLA, as the Bruins' secondary boasts good numbers artificially buoyed by the horrendous production of the front seven against the run.
The big story with most of the media has been Oregon State quarterback Matt Moore's return to UCLA. "It's going to be crazy. People are going to make a big deal out of it, but really, it is just another football game," Moore said.
At virtually every press conference this week, the former Bruin quarterback
has been goaded, poked, and prodded about possible revenge angles for the game.
To Moore's considerable credit, he has politely disdained such conversation,
explaining that if he plays with a chip on his shoulder, that's because that is
the way he always plays. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound junior has shown dazzling bits
of athleticism, but is still working a little bit to fit completely into the
offense. Durability is a concern with Moore's size, but Moore has shown
considerable toughness despite being sacked a league-leading 22 times this
season, yet never missing a snap.
UCLA has two of the better linebackers in the conference with preseason All-Conference selections Justin London and Spencer Havner. The pair is going to be active this week with trying to slow down Oregon State's revived rushing attack and containing Hass. The bad news for the Bruins is that Havner has been battling a chronic ankle injury and may end up being a no-go for the contest.
The UCLA defense has come up big late in the games, however, with the secondary allowing only 26 passing yards in the fourth quarter of each of the past two games, against Cal and Washington State. Even the running defense has made key stops in the fourth quarter, but mostly it has been a mess, yielding 330 rushing yards to the Bears and Cougars, and ranking 10th in the conference.
"We haven't really played to our potential for 60 minutes. There's still a
lot of work to improve on," UCLA coach Karl Dorrell said. "The exciting
thing is that potentially, we can be so much better than what we are ... imagine
if we put all of those things together consistently over the course of a
One thing you can be certain of: this game won't be counted as over by either team until the final bell rings.
Chad can be reached at email@example.com.