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Without Limits Armed with the country's most explosive offense and a callow but improving defense, UCLA has what it takes to win the national championship

Oct. 26, 1998
Oct. 26, 1998

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Oct. 26, 1998

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Without Limits Armed with the country's most explosive offense and a callow but improving defense, UCLA has what it takes to win the national championship

This is not your ordinary national championship contender. The
coach is a sentimentalist who fosters unity in teary team
meetings and showcases trick plays in open practices that look
like county fairs, minus the livestock. The quarterback tosses
touchdown passes and his cookies, and he thinks his Heisman
Trophy candidacy is, frankly, a pain in the butt. His best wide
receiver is more accomplished at volleyball than football, and
his best offensive lineman would rather debate the merits of
Saving Private Ryan than the theories of Buddy Ryan. The leader
of the defense is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior who lives with
his grandmother, while many of his cohorts are so young that
they view the title chase as if they were fans and not
participants. "Before we played Arizona [on Oct. 10] a couple of
us were watching Texas A&M beating Nebraska, and all of a sudden
I'm saying, 'I think this is good, I think this is good for
us,'" says sophomore linebacker Tony White. "It's so weird. I'm
used to just watching those games for pleasure."

This is an article from the Oct. 26, 1998 issue

In short, UCLA is a blast of fresh air in a sport whose
aristocracy (Nebraska; the Big Ten holy trinity of Michigan,
Ohio State and Penn State; half the SEC; Florida State and Notre
Dame, to name the most pedigreed) treats a championship run with
the solemnity of a grand jury appearance. Compared to those
teams, UCLA is Disneyland in pads.

Last Saturday in the Bruins' locker room at the Rose Bowl,
senior kicker Chris Sailer was among the last players to finish
dressing. A stocky former high school soccer player with a crew
cut, muttonchop sideburns and a grunge goatee, Sailer had ended
a fabulously wild 41-38 victory over previously undefeated
Oregon with a 24-yard field goal on UCLA's first overtime
possession. That kick came after Sailer, on the last play in
regulation time, yanked a 21-yard wedge shot wide left, which
came after Bruins quarterback Cade McNown had completed a
miraculous 53-yard pass to his backup, Drew Bennett (lined up at
wideout on a Hail Mary play), which came just one play after the
Ducks had finished a 65-yard drive to tie the game at 38-38 with
22 seconds left, which came after McNown had thrown a 60-yard
pass to erstwhile middle blocker Danny Farmer, a member of
UCLA's 1998 national championship volleyball team, for a
touchdown, which came after...anyway, you get the idea.

Sailer is blessed with the coolness usually reserved for a bass
guitar player. It served him well in surviving the moments
between his miss and his make, and it served him even better on
the game-winning kick, when he saw holder Joey Strycula grab a
wide snap and place the ball at almost a 45-degree angle to the
ground. ("I like it straight up and down," Sailer would say
after the game, "but Joey did a great job to get it as straight
as he did.") Sailer's calm even persisted in the on-field
celebration that followed, during which he was more relieved
than jubilant.

Now he finished dressing and hauled his duffel bag out of his
wooden cubicle. He carefully folded a copy of the game program
and prepared to place it inside the bag. "I usually do keep the
program, but I'm definitely keeping this one," he said, letting
the magazine unfold to show his picture on the cover.

Until further notice, undefeated and second-ranked UCLA is the
freshest face of the season. The Bruins and No. 4 Kansas State
are relative newcomers to the business of title contention, but
UCLA brings uncommon flash to the chase for a spot in the Fiesta
Bowl. Bowing to the possibility that the bloodless computers
(and bloody voters) of the virgin Bowl Championship Series will
punish them for playing only 10 games, the Bruins caved in and
agreed last week to reschedule their game against Miami,
originally set for Sept. 26 but postponed because of the
approach of Hurricane Georges. UCLA had been reluctant to
reschedule the game, which will now be played on Dec. 5 and
which Bruins coach Bob Toledo resignedly refers to as the
Hurricane Bowl, because the Bruins' season would otherwise end
two weeks earlier and an additional game seemed meaningless. The
point is that UCLA is playing--and planning--like a team in the
hunt for the national title.

It should be. It has the most explosive offense in the country,
which helps offset a young, vulnerable defense, and it has won
15 consecutive games, the longest streak in the country. The
Bruins have neither a nemesis (such as Ohio State's Michigan)
nor a big brother (Kansas State's Nebraska). They do have an
unmistakable team synergy, of the variety that visited
Northwestern in 1995 and Arizona State in '96.

UCLA's chemistry was forged a year ago when the Bruins overcame
brutal season-opening losses to eventual Pac-10 co-champion
Washington State (37-34) and eventual SEC champ Tennessee
(30-24) and finished with 10 consecutive wins. They opened this
year with victories over Texas, Houston and Washington State,
but Toledo sensed that something was missing. At a team meeting
in a Tucson hotel on the night before the game against Arizona,
Toledo brought his 11 struggling defensive linemen in front of
the team and challenged them individually by reading off their
weak statistics. When he reached Vae Tata, a fifth-year senior
reserve who was seriously hurt in a 1997 automobile accident,
Toledo choked up. "I suddenly flashed back to seeing Vae in the
hospital," says Toledo. He began crying, and Tata began crying,
and soon most of the Bruins were crying. "Tears of joy, tears of
sadness, tears of excitement," said Farmer. "It was complicated
stuff, it brought us together as a team."

The emotional meeting was in character for Toledo, who has
embraced the UCLA job with all the vigor of a career coaching
junkie given a second chance to run a team--which is exactly
what he is. In 1979, at age 33, Toledo was named coach at
Pacific. It was a dead-end job that offered little hope of
success, and Toledo won just 14 games in four years before
resigning at the end of the '82 season. "We were never going to
turn the corner," says Toledo.

For the ensuing decade he was an assistant at Oregon and Texas
A&M. After the 1994 Cotton Bowl, Toledo was fired as offensive
coordinator by Aggies coach R.C. Slocum. "I was a scapegoat,"
Toledo says, an assessment Slocum now confirms. Terry Donahue
hired Toledo as Bruins offensive coordinator before the '94
season and then retired after the '95 season. After trying to
hire a high-profile coach from outside the program failed, UCLA
chose Toledo. It was a far better situation than Pacific, but
one still fraught with potential failure. Donahue had reached
one Rose Bowl in the previous 10 years and had gone 12-11 in his
last two seasons. He called his teams the Gutty Little Bruins, a
cute nickname that damned them as overmatched dreamers.

Toledo would have none of it. He hired strength coach Kevin
Yoxall from Minnesota, and Yoxall put in place a demanding
weightlifting and conditioning program that was designed not
only to strengthen players' bodies but also to toughen their
spirits. Or as Larry Atkins, a fifth-year senior free safety who
lives with his grandmother in nearby Venice, says lovingly,
"Everybody hated Coach Yox at first, just hated him." To ensure
that players show up for and complete their workouts, Yoxall
rides a bike to the weight room at 5:30 each morning and often
doesn't leave until 8 p.m. His obsessive attention to detail has
paid off. "We used to do 'pencil workouts,'" says 313-pound
senior guard Andy Meyers. "Do one set, write down three." After
last Saturday's chaotic finish, Yoxall was at midfield shaking
hands with the players he continues to help build.

Toledo, meanwhile, has turned practice into a campus event.
Asked by a visiting writer if practices leading up to the game
against Oregon were closed, Toledo answered, "We don't worry
about things like that around here." Sure enough, Tuesday's
session, traditionally the most intense of the week, was
attended by more than 200 spectators, among them a gaggle of
peewee football players in full pads. UCLA ran what appeared to
be its full offensive and defensive packages, including a
halfback pass that the Bruins used--unsuccessfully--against the
Ducks. At the end of the workout, Toledo, surrounded by rugrats
in helmets, shouted to the writer, "Did I tell you this was a
circus?" In major college football, where many practices are
conducted under impenetrable security, this approach is startling.

During practice Toledo sometimes implements what he calls
"sudden change," which means that the players instantly stop
whatever drills they're doing and the first-team offense and
first-team defense engage in a full-contact scrimmage from the
defensive team's 25-yard line. Sudden change simulates the
conditions following a turnover and also mimics overtime. Note
that UCLA's best defensive series in the win over Oregon came in
overtime. "We did sudden change once this week," said Bruins
senior linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo after beating the Ducks.
"Offense scored on us in three plays. It was embarrassing.
That's why we were so good today. We were ready for it."

Of course, any coach's ideas will seem brilliant in the hands of
the right quarterback. For Toledo and UCLA, McNown is the right
quarterback. On Saturday he completed nine of 12 passes for 202
yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions--and that was just
in the fourth quarter. For the game he threw for 395 yards and
three touchdowns, with two interceptions. This performance came
after he had thrown two touchdowns and completed only 10 passes
in 24 attempts against Arizona for 171 yards, his lowest total
in two years. After that game there was much hand-wringing over
McNown's Heisman status, led by none other than UCLA's student
newspaper, the Daily Bruin, which ran a headline reading MCNONE.
The critics ignored the fact that Arizona had dropped six
defenders into pass coverage, daring UCLA to run and rendering a
consistent passing game out of the question.

In all, the weekly ebb and flow of Heisman celebrity baffles
McNown, a mature guy with an impish, inquisitive streak. A few
days before last Saturday's game, he sat on a bench at the south
end of campus and grimaced as music blared from a nearby
building. "They play it every day, and it's not conducive to a
good learning environment," McNown said, deadpan. This might
have been a joke, or it might not have been. He definitely
doesn't crack wise on the Heisman issue, however. "Media people
are so serious about it when they talk to me," McNown said. "I
can't even think about telling a joke, because I'll be taken
seriously. It's like I'm playing in the South, where football
really is serious. The whole thing is a hassle. I put up with it
because we're winning."

It can't be said that McNown lacks guts, because he's prone to
spilling them on the field. With Saturday's game tied late in
the third quarter and the Bruins in possession at midfield,
McNown, who had felt nauseated before the game, stood under
center and began throwing up on the ground to his left. As the
crowd groaned, the referee stopped play. McNown was removed, sat
out one play and then returned to dominate. He also vomited
during last year's game against USC. "Except that was in the
huddle," says junior offensive tackle Kris Farris. "We all
jumped back to keep it off our shoes." McNown was thankful after
Saturday's game that the referee had stopped play. "Otherwise I
would have been up there calling 'Bleah, ugh, blech...' or
something like that," he said in the locker room. Then he
laughed. Nearby a middle-aged visitor shouted to him. "How many
yards did you end up with?" Answered McNown, "I think I ended up
with...um...a win."

More wins will require more help from the defense. Oregon rushed
for 217 yards, including 172 by junior college transfer Reuben
Droughns, who suffered a broken right fibula and is out for the
season. Quarterback Akili Smith passed for 221, and wideout
Damon Griffin caught nine passes for 113. Had it not been for a
crushing four lost fumbles, the Ducks would have won. All this
production came against a UCLA defense that starts two freshmen
and two sophomores and that shuffled its secondary two games
into the season. The Bruins are giving up 27.6 points per game,
the product of frequent errors. "We're better every week," says
linebacker Tony White. They will have to be, should they reach
the Fiesta Bowl. Calculators quake at the prospect of No. 1 Ohio
State facing the UCLA defense today.

Yet there is strong faith among the Bruins. Farris, UCLA's best
offensive lineman, is probably the only college football player
in America whose room is decorated with framed movie posters
from Citizen Kane, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. A
filmaholic who reviews movies for the Los Angeles Daily News (he
gave Rounders and Antz three pancakes each; Urban Legend got a
scalding 1/2), Farris was rejected by the prestigious UCLA film
school (in part because football commitments would have made it
impossible for him to attend enough classes). He worships the
work of Steven Spielberg and last spring accosted the renowned
director outside an L.A. restaurant, just to shake his hand.
Farris is 6'9", 325 pounds; Spielberg was duly frightened. In
the near future, Farris could be both an NFL lineman and a
novice filmmaker.

For now, he is given another job: Match the Bruins' season with
a movie. After all, Westwood is almost Hollywood. "Without
Limits," says Farris, naming the Steve Prefontaine biopic in
current release. "Definitely, we are Without Limits."

So far, anyway.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Duck hunting Kenyon Coleman helped force Droughns to cough up one of Oregon's six fumbles, four of which the Bruins recovered. [UCLA players tackling Reuben Droughns as football drops]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Gifted DeShaun Foster scored on a 51-yard pass and a four-yard run.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Good catch Griffin gave the Bruins fits all day, especially during Oregon's last scoring drive, when he had three catches for 28 yards. [Damon Griffin making leaping catch over defender]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Chucker Despite taking some hits--and losing his lunch--McNown threw for 395 yards and three TDs. [Cade McNown throwing pass over charging defender]
The Bruins are a blast of fresh air. Compared with the sport's
solemn aristocracy, UCLA is Disneyland in pads.
The weekly ebb and flow of Heisman celebrity baffles McNown, a
mature guy with an impish, inquisitive streak.