According to UCLA defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, the book on sophomore free safety Dennis Keyes is that "he's very good in man-to-man coverage. Not a big hitter."
"Smart kid," adds coach Karl Dorrell. "Doesn't say boo."
Yet there was Keyes in the Rose Bowl last Saturday, prowling the secondary like the second coming of Kenny Easley, forcing two fumbles with a pair of savage hits in UCLA's watershed 41-24 win over Oklahoma, then shouting about it afterward.
"There's a perception out there that we don't play physical in the Pac-10," Keyes said on the field after the game, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of fans who had stuck around to celebrate the program's biggest win in seven seasons. In spanking the Sooners, the Bruins improved to 3-0 while handing the visitors their second loss in three games. "We showed today that we know how to play hard," Keyes continued. "We know how to play with the best of them."
That last part may be a bit of a stretch, since Oklahoma no longer appears to rate as one of the nation's top teams. With a season-opening loss to TCU (which dropped its next game to SMU); a closer-than-expected win over Tulsa; six fumbles against UCLA, three of which the Bruins recovered and converted into 17 points; and numerous injuries and defections (two offensive linemen quit on the eve of the season), the Sooners are reeling. But they're still nasty, and they still play a hard-hitting, smashmouth style. It's worth noting, however, that the men in the powder-blue jerseys matched Oklahoma's physical play and, as the afternoon wore on, exceeded it.
When Oklahoma scored first, on a 56-yard reverse by wideout Travis Wilson, Kerr told his defense to forget it. " Oklahoma wasn't doing things that were beating us," he says. "They weren't beating us on the line of scrimmage." He got that right. After rushing for 23 yards in the first quarter, the Sooners' All-America tailback, Adrian Peterson, gained 35 over the next three.
Peterson's worst game as a collegian was Dorrell's finest hour. A former Bruins wideout and Denver Broncos assistant who was hired after the '02 regular season to replace Bob Toledo, Dorrell came to the job with no head-coaching experience. A plainspoken, reserved fellow, he suffered in comparison with his charismatic crosstown counterpart, USC's Pete Carroll. In any other city Dorrell's slow, steady progress would have rated more positive attention. With Carroll & Co. about 14 miles away snapping up California's blue-chip recruits and playing for the national title every year, the Bruins have been an afterthought in L.A. That almost changed last December, when UCLA took the Trojans to the wire, but USC prevailed 29-24. In keeping with their customary late-season collapses, the Bruins then fell to Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl, dropping Dorrell's two-year record to 12-13.
So after starting this season with routs of San Diego State and Rice, the Bruins and Dorrell desperately needed a win over a ranked opponent--the Sooners came in at No. 21 in the AP poll--to convince the public, and themselves, that this is a program on the upswing. In those first two victories senior quarterback Drew Olson completed 70% of his passes, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. But could he have that kind of success against Oklahoma?
The Sooners' problems had largely been on offense; their defense had remained stout. But Olson, working underneath the Sooners' umbrella scheme, which takes away the long pass, picked Oklahoma apart. He distributed the ball to 10 receivers, completing 28 of his 38 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Some wins are bigger than others, and this was the biggest UCLA victory of the Dorrell era. Don't tell the Bruins they beat a team on the skids. "I know they're not where they want to be," said Kerr, "but doggone it, they're still Oklahoma."