COLLEGE FOOTBALL : McNown Belongs in Bruin Backfield : Pac-10: Freshman quarterback convinces his elders he can lead offense.


Cade McNown is too young to have known UCLA's pain against California, winners of five consecutive games against the Bruins before Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl.

McNown, a true freshman, only knew what he heard around the locker room, read in the papers, felt around campus:

This ugly little streak against Cal had to end, even if it meant it would take an 18-year-old quarterback to do it.

"I wanted the seniors to leave beating Cal," McNown said. "These guys put in their time, they deserved to win."

McNown made sure no greenhorn (namely him) would screw it up.

Showing poise beyond his weeks as a UCLA starter, McNown exhibited the deft art of handing off to Karim Abdul-Jabbar and a steadiness under center that suddenly isn't surprising anyone any more.

McNown was Cool Hand Cade in UCLA's 33-16 victory over Cal, holding his own in a game that might have exploded in the Bruins' face on several occasions.

McNown completed 13 of 24 passes for 157 yards, passed for one touchdown and rushed for another and had 51 yards in six carries.

"I would like to tell you I was shocked," UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said of McNown's performance.

But Donahue was not. Since Donahue inserted McNown as the starter three weeks ago, the Bruins have won three in a row and, heaven forbid, re-entered the bowl picture.

Teammates who once would have been mortified at the thought of a freshman leading them into November are becoming believers.

"Of course I would have been worried," senior linebacker Tommy Bennett said. "Everyone's worried about true freshman quarterbacks. But Cade has done an outstanding job. Every game he's played, he's played like a winner, like a veteran."

Unlike his counterpart, Cal junior quarterback Pat Barnes, McNown played almost an errorless game.

Barnes had better numbers, passing for 343 yards, but was intercepted twice in crucial situations.

McNown was not intercepted and came through when UCLA needed him most. After Cal cut the lead to 16-10 late in the third quarter, McNown led the Bruins on the most critical land march of the evening, a 75-yard, 12-play drive that ended with McNown tossing an 11-yard scoring pass to Jim McElroy on the first play of the fourth quarter.

McNown was hardly a bystander. Facing third and five from his own 30, he dumped a screen pass to Derek Ayers, who raced 20 yards for a key first down.

"The play to Ayers was huge," offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said.

Later in the drive, McNown displayed his considerable running talents, running nine yards around left end on an option play from the 50 and then, two plays later, scooting for 15 more on the same play to the Cal 30.

Toledo said McNown has the power to call the play, "if he's got the right look."

McNown is a good athlete who picks his spots as a runner and is not afraid of contact.

"He's a physical runner," Toledo said. "He doesn't have blazing speed, but he's good enough to get himself down field and run through tackles."

More and more, McNown appears the boy-man capable of leading this team this year and beyond.

"Sometimes you can tell he's a freshman." Bennett said.

How's that?

"He's just so full of energy, full of life," Bennett explained. "When you get to your fourth or fifth year, you're kind of one step slower. But he'll keep his gear on all night long."

Of course, it will take time before McNown gains Donahue's full trust.

Late in the first half, UCLA faced second down at Cal's 16 with seven seconds left.

Donahue called for the field goal team.

"If Cade was a little older, and had a little more experience, we might have taken a chance to get a play off in seven seconds," Donahue said. "My feeling was, 'He's never been in this situation, we've got seven seconds.' That's borderline. If it's 10 seconds, you've got it. As he gets older, he'll be able to handle all those situations."

McNown doesn't turn 19 until Jan. 12.

He thinks he's here to stay.

"I didn't know freshmen didn't belong," McNown said.

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