Time to Shine
If UCLA expects to challenge USC and Cal for Pac-10 supremacy, heralded QB BenOlson has to raise his game
IT WASN'T hisintention, but UCLA quarterback Ben Olson, who transferred to Westwood from BYU2 1/2 years ago, struck the perfect balance with his performance against theCougars last Saturday. Olson played well enough to keep his current teamundefeated, but not nearly well enough to leave his old one heartbroken overhis departure.
The 11th-rankedBruins (2--0) snapped BYU's 11-game winning streak with a 27--17 victory at theRose Bowl, but they didn't show much progress toward their greater objective:proving that they are serious challengers to the Pac-10's elite, USC andCalifornia. To do that, they'll need Olson to be much sharper than he was onSaturday, when he completed 13 of 28 passes for 126 yards with an interception.UCLA's stout defense, which contributed a 56-yard interception return for atouchdown by cornerback Trey Brown, was mostly responsible for avoiding theupset. "Not every game is going to be perfect," Olson said afterward."I feel I could have played better. But I don't think we're far away fromreaching the level we need to."
The BYU faithfulexpected Olson to elevate the Cougars when he arrived in 2002 as thehighest-rated quarterback recruit in the country. But after being redshirted asa freshman, Olson left for a two-year Mormon mission, then transferred to UCLAfor reasons he has never made entirely clear—although one former teammate toldthe Deseret Morning News that Olson was upset over being promised by then coachGary Crowton a chance to play as a freshman, which never materialized.
September 16, 2007
Olson, now amarried, 24-year-old junior, knows all about unfulfilled promise, having failedso far to live up to the expectations that accompanied him from Thousand Oaks(Calif.) High. He has shown flashes of star quality, including a five-touchdownperformance in the Bruins' 45--17 season-opening victory over Stanford, butconsistency has eluded him and the program as a whole. In a perfect example ofUCLA's up-and-down nature, the team beat No. 2 USC in the regular-season finalelast year, then took a 44--27 thrashing from Florida State in the Emerald Bowlto finish 7--6.
The Bruins expectthis to be the year that they prove themselves capable of sustained excellence.Fifth-year coach Karl Dorrell has a roster full of his recruits for the firsttime, and he has 20 of his 22 starters back from last season. "There's noquestion that you should see a difference in this team compared to what you'veseen the last three or four years," he says. "We're ready to take thenext step."
The passing gameagainst BYU suggested otherwise. The lefthanded Olson seemed to deliver theball a hair late on several of his incompletions, and the play-calling—one weekafter UCLA strafed the Cardinal for 624 total yards with a variety of screensand even a flea-flicker—was more buttoned-down. "It definitely--wasn't ourbest offensive performance," Dorrell said. "There are some play callsthat probably could have been better; there was some execution that could havebeen better. But it was encouraging to see Ben make the plays he needed to makedown the stretch, when we needed to close the game out. That's the sign of aquarterback and a team that are learning how to finish."
With four winnablegames—at Utah, versus Washington, at Oregon State and versus Notre Dame—comingup, the Bruins surely have visions of being 6-0 and in the foreground of thenational championship picture when Cal visits the Rose Bowl on Oct. 20,although they would never say as much. "All we're really concerned with isthe next game, the next practice," Olson says. "We don't mind puttingin the work. We actually look forward to it." That's good, because if theBruins are going to make a national splash, there's a lot of work left to bedone.
ONLY AT SI.COM Thelatest news and analysis from Stewart Mandel.
Three and Out
1 For Nebraska to upset No. 1 USC this Saturday,quarterback Sam Keller needs to cut down on his mistakes. In a 20--17 win atWake Forest, the Arizona State transfer had three turnovers and repeatedlyoverthrew open receivers.
2 Virginia Tech suffered a humbling 48--7 loss at No. 2LSU but found a new QB. Fleet-footed freshman Tyrod Taylor played 2 1/2quarters and produced 57 of the Hokies' 65 yards on their lone scoring drive.He'll start on Saturday versus Ohio.
3 It will be difficult for No. 4 West Virginia, No. 9Louisville or No. 13 Rutgers to make it through Big East play undefeated. Inaddition to each other, they must also face South Florida (a 26--23 winner atAuburn) and Cincinnati (34--3 over Oregon State).