If UCLA were faced with third and long yardage against the oncoming rush-hour traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway, Quarterback John Sciarra would somehow squirm between the hurtling Datsuns and Cadillacs to make the first down. Or he would complete a pass over the center divider. Or do something ingenious, for John Michael Sciarra has just what it takes to run UCLA's veer offense—the legs, the arms, the head and even the genes (for you trivia lovers, in 1942 his dad, John Joseph Sciarra, won the L.A. high school city championship in the 880, beating, among others, future Olympian Mal Whitfield).
Third and six on the UCLA 13 against Iowa State two weeks ago: Sciarra (pronounced Shar'ah) connects with Split End Norm Andersen on a 43-yard pass play. Third and 10 on the UCLA 31 against Iowa State: Sciarra and Andersen collaborate on another 43-yarder. Third and seven on the Tennessee 10: Sciarra drops back, sees no friendly jersey in the clear, zips around right end for the Bruins' first touchdown. In last Saturday's game in the Coliseum with Tennessee, one that will not go down as a defensive classic, Sciarra turned seven third-and-long situations into first downs or touchdowns as UCLA won 34-28. It would have been eight except for a dropped pass.
"I think consistency tells most about an athlete," says Sciarra. "I would rather have seven good games than three unbelievably great ones, even if those should be against Tennessee, Ohio State and USC. It wouldn't satisfy me as much, although I know it would be great for publicity."
Consistent he has been so far. In the 37-21 defeat of Iowa State he passed for 117 yards and ran for 102 for a total of 219. Against Tennessee he passed for 140 and ran for 71 for a total of 211.
Sciarra, whose parents are of Italian extraction, grew up in the L.A. suburb of Alhambra and got into baseball much earlier than football because his dad had been a pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system. John Michael was a fine baseball player at Bishop Amat High School and was picked in the major league draft by Cleveland, but he opted for UCLA and college football, although he expects to play shortstop for the Bruins this spring. As a sophomore under Coach Pepper Rodgers he built himself up with weights to run the quarterback-punishing wishbone attack, but had to share playing time with senior Mark Harmon.
Dick Vermeil took over as coach in '74 and installed the veer. There was no question but that Sciarra had the quarterback job all to himself, especially after the first game, one of the finest any UCLA quarterback has ever had—and that includes Bob Waterfield, Ronnie Knox, Bill Kilmer and Gary Beban. UCLA tied Tennessee 17-17 at Knoxville that day, and Sciarra seemed to run and pass the entire length of the state, from Bristol to Memphis and back again, 390 yards actually, including a 71-yard scamper. But his chances for All-America honors were wrecked when his right leg was broken in the seventh game, against California.
The orange-jerseyed Volunteers were careful to observe tradition for last Saturday's renewal of the rivalry. They had left their coonhound mascot Smokey at home, but as always they had orange Jell-O for dessert in their pregame meal, and as always they started three potential pros at linebacker—Andy Spiva, Steve Poole and Russ Williams. (Tennessee turns out linebackers the way the Yale Law School turns out Supreme Court Justices.) One tradition the Vols did not want to honor was losing in L.A. and environs, which they had done in the '40 and '45 Rose Bowls (to USC) and in the Coliseum in '67 (to UCLA).
Tennessee had beaten Maryland 26-8 in the Vols' season opener as junior Running Back Stanley Morgan tore up and down the field, but UCLA's Vermeil was more impressed by the Vols' angry-hive-of-wasps gang tackling and quickness of pursuit. The way he painted it, a runner had about as much chance of getting through the Tennessee line as he would trying to flap his arms and fly to Mars.
"Tennessee is back to playing its traditional great defense," he said, "and they're fanatical the way they swarm all over you.... If we can move the ball and score points on those people, we can do it on anyone."
UCLA did move the ball and did score points, but it could have used Sciarra at cornerback or defensive end or somewhere because at times the young defensive unit did a splendid imitation of a tissue-paper wall. Sciarra's 10-yard ad lib around right end got UCLA off to a 7-0 lead, and when a clipping penalty on the subsequent kickoff nullified Morgan's 57-yard return and put Tennessee back on its own seven, the Bruins seemed to be ready for a romp. Instead, Quarterback Randy Wallace marched the Vols 93 yards to tie the score.
UCLA regained the lead and kept it the rest of the way, but it was not easy. Wendell Tyler sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown to put UCLA ahead. A 47-yard pass play from Sciarra to James Sarpy set up another score. Taking advantage of Tennessee's defensive speed, Sciarra faked one way to get the linebackers flowing left, then handed off to ex-high school hurdler Wally Henry on a counter that became a 45-yard touchdown run for a 27-13 lead. But Wallace and sophomore Gary Roach kept leading the Vols back. And Wide Receiver Larry Seivers kept getting loose in the Bruin secondary, ending the day with nine catches for 145 yards.
At last, leading by what would be the final score, UCLA played defense when it really counted, hounding Roach and Wallace late in the fourth quarter and twice making Tennessee give up the ball.
"I think we were playing as good an offensive team as we will meet this season," said Vol Coach Bill Battle. Vermeil had high praise for Tyler, Sarpy and others, but he reserved his highest accolades for Sciarra.
"I thought he threw the ball real well," Vermeil said. "We would have passed more, but we wanted to control the ball longer because our defense wasn't holding them. John Sciarra's got to be one of the finest football players in the country. I just hope he gets the recognition he deserves. The kids rally around him like he was a general."