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 scalding½), 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.