Bad news, Bears. Four minutes into the fourth quarter of a game
last Saturday in which UCLA had not led, Bruins junior fullback
Ed Ieremia-Stansbury fumbled at the Michigan 31. The Wolverines,
leading 20-17 in their first regular-season game at the Rose Bowl
since 1989, recovered. If Michigan scored, UCLA was toast.
But the Wolverines were forced to punt to the Bruins, who were
quarterbacked by redshirt sophomore Ryan McCann, a raw but
resilient southpaw who had kept his chin up despite being benched
and publicly criticized by coach Bob Toledo a week earlier.
McCann's father, John, incidentally, is an actor whose body of
work includes a brief but heartwarming turn in a Viagra
commercial. So the McCann men know a little something about
rising from the dead.
Ryan drove UCLA 83 yards to the Michigan two, where he called a
play-action pass to Ieremia-Stansbury. The dreadlocked Texan's
touchdown catch with 6:30 left more than made up for his fumble
and clinched a 23-20 win--the Bruins' second stunning upset in
three weeks and further proof that the beleaguered Pac-10 is a
force again (chart, page 70). The Wolverines entered the game
ranked third in the country, only because UCLA had knocked
Alabama from that spot two weeks earlier, physically dominating
the Crimson Tide in a 35-24 win.
Last Saturday, when the temperature on the field reached
118[degrees], turning the Rose Bowl into a giant wok, the Bruins
scorched the national championship hopes of Michigan, primarily
because their No. 2 quarterback was better than the Wolverines'.
But that's not how it had figured to play out.
Michigan's 6'6" redshirt freshman passer John Navarre, who had
been thrust into the starting job after Drew Henson broke a bone
in his right foot 10 days before the season opener, entered the
game against UCLA with the nation's best pass-efficiency rating
(238.8), having feasted on Bowling Green and Rice in the
Wolverines' first two games. McCann went up against Michigan with
his ears still burning from the criticism Toledo had leveled at
him a week earlier.
After having been beaten out of the starting job by Cory Paus in
preseason practice, McCann got a break when Paus separated his
right shoulder during the Bruins' first series against Alabama.
While McCann came on to lead UCLA to victory, he was inconsistent
in that game as well as in the Bruins' 24-21 defeat of Fresno
State a week later. He would look like Steve Young on one play
and Stevie Nicks on the next. Toledo even benched him for the
second half of the Fresno State game, inserting third-teamer
Scott McEwan, a junior. Afterward, rather than fib to the media
to spare McCann's feelings, as most coaches not named Spurrier
would have done, Toledo merrily ticked off all the ways in which
McCann had stunk--poor reads, bad audibles, missed blitzes--and
blamed him for everything but the brutal traffic on I-405.
There was a method to this meanness, Toledo explained. The idea
was to ratchet up McCann's focus--to forcefully make the point
that, as he told McCann, "potential doesn't matter anymore.
"I figured if the criticism didn't kill me, it would make me
stronger," McCann said last Saturday.
That sentiment applies to the entire UCLA team, which is coming
off the mother of all nightmare seasons. The Bruins' seven
defeats in 11 games only scratched the surface of what they lost.
The revelation that 10 players had abused handicapped-parking
placards turned the UCLA players into poster boys for spoiled,
Rather than fragmenting, however, the Bruins came together. The
number of players who stayed on campus over the summer to
participate in off-season workouts increased sharply. Perhaps the
most inspiring member of that group was junior flanker Freddie
Mitchell, who plays with a titanium rod in his right femur, which
had snapped clean through when he was tackled on a kickoff return
in 1998. Mitchell looks on the bright side: The speed he
initially lost--he insists he has gained it back--forced him to run
more precise routes. A gifted outfielder and draftee of the
Chicago White Sox, Mitchell has thrown three option passes for
touchdowns while at UCLA. Whenever Bruins quarterbacks struggle,
Toledo is urged by fans to put Mitchell under center.
John McCann doesn't find such suggestions amusing. Not that he
lacks a sense of humor. He simply cares about Ryan's feelings.
When he found himself fourth on the depth chart at the beginning
of last season, Ryan thought about quitting. John knew that
feeling. After getting out of the Marines in 1959, he had played
tight end and defensive end for two years at Arizona, where the
coach screamed at him one too many times. "I told him to take the
football and put it you-know-where," John says.
While he found that moment cathartic, John regrets quitting
football. He urged Ryan to "keep plugging"--advice John followed
in pursuing his acting career. He has carved a niche for himself
in TV shows (he played Janine Turner's father in Northern
Exposure) and commercials, though he's not working now because of
the Screen Actors Guild strike that entered its 19th week on
Monday. His role as a pilot in an American Airlines spot prompted
one of Ryan's friends to say, "I didn't know your dad was a
pilot!" John's appearance in the Viagra ad (he is dancing with a
woman in a penthouse) caused a furor among his fiftysomething
friends. "They ask me, 'Does it work?'" he says, "and I say,
'Does it work!'"
It would have eased John's mind to know that just before the
Bruins took the field last Saturday, Toledo gave Ryan a boost by
telling him it was "his game to win" and assuring him that there
would be no quick hook. McCann went out and completed six of 19
passes in the first half, at the end of which UCLA trailed 13-3.
Bruins receivers contributed to the miserable showing by dropping
a half-dozen well-thrown balls.
"Let's just play catch," suggested Mitchell to McCann at
halftime. "Just you and me. You throw it up there; I'll take care
of the rest."
True to his word, Mitchell made seven of his 10 receptions in the
second half, and a funny thing happened after he and the other
UCLA receivers stopped dropping balls. With the Wolverines'
defense suddenly pass-conscious, running lanes appeared. After
having been bottled up in the first half (eight carries for 17
yards), tailback DeShaun Foster finished with 95 yards rushing.
Navarre and the Wolverines' kicking game regressed as the game
progressed. Navarre's crisp, 29-yard scoring pass to sensational
wideout David Terrell in the second quarter turned out to be the
high point of an afternoon in which he completed eight of 28
passes and was intercepted at the UCLA 10 on Michigan's final
possession. Two other fourth-quarter drives by the Wolverines
ended in missed field goal attempts (46 and 24 yards) by Hayden
Epstein. McCann, on the other hand, gained confidence as the game
went on, finishing 21 of 40 for 236 yards, no interceptions and
Paus is expected to return by October. Should McCann keep
improving, the Bruins may find themselves with a midseason
quarterback controversy. As one proud UCLA parent might say, Let
the dance begin.
The Pac Is Back
After going 20-18 in nonconference games last season, including a
1-4 record in bowls, the Pathetic 10, er, the Pac-10 has reversed
course this year. Its teams have won 19 of 23 nonconference
matchups. That includes a 5-3 mark against ranked opponents
(below) and four upsets of teams ranked in the Top 5 at the time.
Aug. 27 No. 15 USC 29 No. 22 Penn State 5
Sept. 2 UCLA 35 No. 3 Alabama 24
Sept. 9 No. 15 Washington 34 No. 4 Miami 29
Sept. 9 Oregon 23 No. 5 Wisconsin 27
Sept. 9 Arizona 17 No. 18 Ohio State 27
Sept. 16 No. 14 UCLA 23 No. 3 Michigan 20
Sept. 16 Stanford 27 No. 5 Texas 24
Sept. 16 California 15 No. 19 Illinois 17