Uck-lah Preview

Time to stop the talking and strap it on. Mark takes a closer look at UCLA and why they are a top 5 team this season.

This isn’t your average team. Of course it’s not your average UCLA team either.

The Bruins have one of the best winning traditions in the conference, but they’ve never really been known for a dominating defense. Their best teams of the last few years made it to the Top 5 and the Rose Bowl on sheer offense alone. Defense was saved for the O’Bannon brothers. The 1998 UCLA squad started out 10-0 and was within a controversial fumble call of playing for the national title, but had a fatal flaw: A severe lack of any “D” whatsoever (even if Jeff Allen would disagree).

This year’s UCLA bunch seems to be possessed by the fury of making up for prior failures: No defense, no heart, and a severe case of playing down to its competition (who else beats Michigan and Alabama, but loses to Cal in the same season?) were what recent Bruin squads were known for. Things are much different though in 2001. A punishing defense that is among the best in the nation, along with a running back who leads all runners in yards-per-game have largely been the reasons why UCLA is currently ranked #4 in the AP poll and is a serious contender for a national championship.

UCLA running backs, from Freeman McNeil, Gaston Green and Skip Hicks, have been known for their strong running, dishing out as much punishment as their defenders would like to give them. DeShaun Foster fits this exact mold. The senior was already known as one of the top backs in the conference before 2001, but now could be the first Pac-10 player since Marcus Allen in 1981 to win the Heisman Trophy. Foster, a proud owner of a pit-bull, has been almost as ferocious on the field. He’s averaging over 150 yard a game this season, including a monster game against Washington: 301 yards on 31 carries (9.7 average) and four touchdowns, with a 93-yarder. All of this is no fluke, as he has over 3,000 yards in his career and is closing in on the school record for most career touchdowns. He’s also rushed for more than 180 yards three times in his 3+ years in Westwood.

The Bruins’ strength of schedule may be questionable, but the strength of their defense is not. UCLA is allowing less than 13 points a game, including only 10 touchdowns. No team has scored more than once in a quarter, and they haven’t even been scored upon in the third quarter all season. All the athletes on this unit bring to mind dominating groups like UofA’s Desert Swarm and the great Washington defenses of the same era. This UCLA defense isn’t nearly as dominating, but still is almost as impressive and has several NFL prospects.

The leader of the group is senior Robert Thomas, an outstanding middle linebacker who leads the Pac-10 in tackles and is a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award. He already has 18 tackles for loss, an amount that ranks him amid some pretty elite company (Marvcus Patton, Donnie Edwards, Carnell Lake) for the UCLA single season record. Ryan Nece is equally impressive, as the senior linebacker has recovered very well from off-season surgery to both of his shoulders. No player on the team has started more games (27). Junior Marcus Reese and sophomore Brandon Chillar will see time off the bench.

The secondary boasts two of the top defensive backs in the nation. Marques Anderson has adjusted well to the move from strong to free safety as he is tied for second on the team with 33 tackles (20 solo). He also has an interception and has broken up nine passes. Ricky Manning was a 1st Team All-Pac 10 selection last year at cornerback and has followed that up with an equally impressive 2001. He has three interceptions, and his stuff of Alabama running back Ahmaad Galloway on a 4th-and-goal helped preserve the eventual UCLA win.

Our favorite ex-Cal head coach, Keith Gilbertson (now the offensive coordinator at UW) compared this UCLA defensive line to that of the aforementioned Desert Swarm group after the Huskies were held to minus yards of net-rushing against the Bruins. While we don’t expect to hear many words of wisdom coming from this former inept weenie, he does have a point. Opposing teams are averaging only 2.9 yards per-carry against UCLA this year. Redshirt sophomore Rodney Leisle has two sacks and four tackles for loss. The former Sporting News freshman All-American is a definite force in the trenches, as is fellow tackle Anthony Fletcher. The ends to keep an eye on will be Steve Morgan and Dave Ball.

Quarterback Cory Paus isn’t putting up the same kinds of numbers as Cade McNown did when he was leading UCLA into the top 5, but he doesn’t have to. Paus emerged from a QB controversy against lefty Ryan McCann in 2000 and this season has done everything but make mistakes. He still has yet to throw an interception, and when Cal stacked eight men on the line of scrimmage against him, he promptly threw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns.

Look for Paus to throw to some big targets at wide receiver: Tab Perry and Ryan Smith are tall wide-outs who will pose yet another threat to the maligned Stanford secondary. Craig Bragg snagged a 58-yard bomb against Cal (the longest of the year for UCLA), but dangerous senior Brian Poli-Dixon is another member of the Bruin M.A.S.H unit with a sprained ankle. He is questionable for Saturday’s game.

UCLA is also winning because of special teams. They can block punts – they scored off two blocks in the last two games alone. Chris Griffith should make 1st Team All Pac-10, as he is 7-9 in field goals and has made all 26 extra points (those are automatic for some teams). Nate Fiske led the conference in punting last season and is averaging around 41 yards a kick in 2001.

Top to bottom, they’re probably isn’t a better team in the conference. Everything has gone UCLA’s way this year, from scores of the games to the fact that this will be their third consecutive opponent in which the opposing starting QB will miss the game. With an especially stingy and hard-hitting defense, Chris Lewis cannot make major mistakes-He could end getting picked off or even seriously hurt. PREDICITION- Foster’s fumbles nearly cost his team against Ohio State, but they really cost him this time around! After staying close the whole game, Stanford forces him to cough it up late, and the Cards take advantage. Teyo snags the winning grab ala Lofton in ’77 and Stanford sneaks away with another one, 24-20.

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