In a little more than nine months, UCLA's football program has gone from being within a victory of playing for the national championship to being the subject of derision that has an excellent chance of increasing with Saturday night's nationally televised game at Ohio State.
Some of the Bruins' downturn is the product of college football's natural cycle. All-American quarterback Cade McNown completed his eligibility last season.
The offensive line lost three of its five starters, as two completed their eligibility and all-American tackle Kris Farris gave up his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
However, some of UCLA's problems are self-inflicted. They began with a 49-45 loss at Miami last December. If the Bruins had won, they would have played in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title. Instead, their 20-game winning streak was stopped in humiliating fashion: They allowed 689 yards, 299 rushing by Edgerrin James, and squandered a 38-21 lead in the game's final 16 1/2 minutes. Then, in the Rose Bowl, they gave up 497 yards and lost to Wisconsin, 38-31.
During the offseason, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti returned to Oregon, strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall left for Auburn and, most embarrassingly, 11 players were suspended by the university for wrongfully obtaining and using disabled-parking placards.
All of those players missed the 14th-ranked Bruins' 38-7, season-opening victory over Boise State last week, and all will miss Saturday night's game against the 13th-ranked Buckeyes. Among that group are five defensive starters, including all three linebackers, and two offensive starters.
The defense suffered another blow during the opener when end Travor Turner, whom Coach Bob Toledo called "the spiritual leader for us," ruptured his right anterior cruciate ligament and will be out for the season. In addition, starting wide receiver Danny Farmer, a 1998 first-team all-Pacific-10 Conference selection who missed the season opener because of a sprained ankle, is questionable for this week's game.
"If we can pull this one out and then get all our guys back, we'll have something to feed off of for the rest of the year," quarterback Drew Bennett said. "We'll be a real intimidating team."
That would be a change from this summer, when the disabled-parking debacle allowed observers to use less-flattering adjectives to describe the team -- particularly the front-line players involved in the scheme: linebackers Ali Abdul-Azziz, Ryan Nece and Tony White, safety Ryan Roques, cornerback Marques Anderson, fullback Durell Price and guard Oscar Cabrera.
Lawyers for Abdul-Azziz, Cabrera, Nece and Roques reached a plea bargain with the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. The players pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of filing a false document, were sentenced to 200 hours of community service, including 100 with the Special Olympics, fined $1,485 each and placed on two years of probation. Anderson -- who will miss the season after being suspended from school for the fall quarter -- Price and top backup offensive lineman Jim Ghezzi have not accepted the deal and are scheduled to be arraigned in Los Angeles Municipal Court Tuesday.
The suspensions prompted Toledo to do some serious improvising against Boise State. Starting wide receiver Freddie Mitchell and running back DeShaun Foster played in the defensive backfield in passing situations, a ploy Toledo plans to repeat against Ohio State.
Toledo also played six freshmen against Boise State, with Asi Faoa starting at outside linebacker.
At quarterback Bennett, a junior, drew boos 7 minutes 4 seconds into his first start. By then, two of his first three passes had been tipped or batted down, the fourth was intercepted and the fifth thrown behind Mitchell.
Following his pregame plan, Toledo replaced Bennett with redshirt freshman Cory Paus after three series. Paus threw a touchdown pass on his second series and guided the Bruins to another touchdown on the following drive. Bennett had a stronger second half, throwing a 65-yard touchdown pass to Randy Hakes and directing a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
"I would have liked to have had the first three series back; I felt much better in the second half," said Bennett, who completed 8 of 16 passes for 120 yards, compared to Paus's 12-of-18 passing for 128 yards and two interceptions.
Toledo said he would use a similar quarterback rotation against Ohio State, but may abandon it by the time UCLA plays Fresno State on Sept. 18.
"I don't like [a two-quarterback system]," Toledo said. "First of all, it dilutes the position. It's really hard to prepare one guy for a game, let alone two. When you play one guy, he can really get in a rhythm and you have continuity. When you have two guys, it's really hard."
It's also hard when the running game isn't working at a high level. And despite the return of the team's top two rushers from 1998, Foster and Jermaine Lewis, the rebuilt offensive line enabled the Bruins to gain only 153 yards on 41 carries against Boise State. "Offensively, we showed our youth, particularly up front," Toledo said. ". . . I think we'll improve there."
Despite the many uncertainties, a victory over the Buckeyes could launch the Bruins on another run toward at least a berth in the Rose Bowl. After Ohio State, UCLA has only three games against ranked teams: Oct. 2 at No. 25 Arizona State, Oct. 30 against No. 19 Arizona and Nov. 20 at No. 18 Southern California.
Farmer called Saturday's contest "the most important game for UCLA" since Toledo became coach in 1996. "People have questioned him and have said the Pac-10 isn't strong and UCLA is playing in a weaker conference," Farmer said. "I think this is the game where UCLA can put itself on the map, if we do win. Over the past few years, we've lost to big-time schools on the East Coast or in the Midwest. If we can win this game, I think it will be the greatest win for Coach Toledo and this program."