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Phil Taylor
September 17, 2007
Time to Shine If UCLA expects to challenge USC and Cal for Pac-10 supremacy, heralded QB Ben Olson has to raise his game
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September 17, 2007

College Football

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Time to Shine
If UCLA expects to challenge USC and Cal for Pac-10 supremacy, heralded QB Ben Olson has to raise his game

IT WASN'T his intention, but UCLA quarterback Ben Olson, who transferred to Westwood from BYU 2 1/2 years ago, struck the perfect balance with his performance against the Cougars last Saturday. Olson played well enough to keep his current team undefeated, but not nearly well enough to leave his old one heartbroken over his departure.

The 11th-ranked Bruins (2--0) snapped BYU's 11-game winning streak with a 27--17 victory at the Rose 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 and California. To do that, they'll need Olson to be much sharper than he was on Saturday, 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 a touchdown by cornerback Trey Brown, was mostly responsible for avoiding the upset. "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 from reaching the level we need to."

The BYU faithful expected Olson to elevate the Cougars when he arrived in 2002 as the highest-rated quarterback recruit in the country. But after being redshirted as a freshman, Olson left for a two-year Mormon mission, then transferred to UCLA for reasons he has never made entirely clear—although one former teammate told the Deseret Morning News that Olson was upset over being promised by then coach Gary Crowton a chance to play as a freshman, which never materialized.

Olson, now a married, 24-year-old junior, knows all about unfulfilled promise, having failed so 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-touchdown performance in the Bruins' 45--17 season-opening victory over Stanford, but consistency has eluded him and the program as a whole. In a perfect example of UCLA's up-and-down nature, the team beat No. 2 USC in the regular-season finale last year, then took a 44--27 thrashing from Florida State in the Emerald Bowl to finish 7--6.

The Bruins expect this 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 first time, and he has 20 of his 22 starters back from last season. "There's no question that you should see a difference in this team compared to what you've seen the last three or four years," he says. "We're ready to take the next step."

The passing game against BYU suggested otherwise. The lefthanded Olson seemed to deliver the ball a hair late on several of his incompletions, and the play-calling—one week after UCLA strafed the Cardinal for 624 total yards with a variety of screens and even a flea-flicker—was more buttoned-down. "It definitely--wasn't our best offensive performance," Dorrell said. "There are some play calls that probably could have been better; there was some execution that could have been better. But it was encouraging to see Ben make the plays he needed to make down the stretch, when we needed to close the game out. That's the sign of a quarterback and a team that are learning how to finish."

With four winnable games—at Utah, versus Washington, at Oregon State and versus Notre Dame—coming up, the Bruins surely have visions of being 6-0 and in the foreground of the national championship picture when Cal visits the Rose Bowl on Oct. 20, although they would never say as much. "All we're really concerned with is the next game, the next practice," Olson says. "We don't mind putting in the work. We actually look forward to it." That's good, because if the Bruins are going to make a national splash, there's a lot of work left to be done.

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