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A Quarterback Controversy, or Is He Just Pushing Paus’ Buttons?

The two most delicious words for a fan, yet the most unsettling words for a program, surfaced late Saturday from the chaos of a UCLA comeback.

Quarterback controversy.

They were, not coincidentally, accompanied by two other juicy words.

Coaching controversy.

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Sixty minutes into a new Bruin season, and we’re already having way too much fun.

Bob Toledo, either totally inspired or completely nuts, benched Cory Paus after his best drive against Colorado State. And handed a fourth-quarter deficit to a, um, er, freshman....

Drew Olson, either savvy or blessed, drove the team to the go-ahead touchdown.

At which point Paus, either angry or determined, re-entered the game and led the Bruins to two more touchdowns in an eventual 30-19 victory.

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Confused yet?

Join a crowd of 58,078.

During a typically batty Bruin game at the Rose Bowl, fans booed Paus, then cheered Olson, then booed Toledo, then cheered Paus.

In the end, everyone finally agreed on something--a roar--when Brandon Chillar nailed Ram quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt on a tying two-point conversion attempt in the final two minutes.

But talk about exhausting.

And this was before everyone tried to explain it.

Said Toledo: “There is no quarterback controversy. Cory Paus is the quarterback. But we now have a guy who we’re not afraid to put in there.”

Said Paus: “I’m the quarterback. He’s the quarterback of the future.”

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Said Olson, a kid from northern California: “Cory is the quarterback. I have to be ready if he gets hurt.”

Right.

Yet with the first game of the most important autumn of his coaching career on the line, Toledo gives the ball to the 19-year-old?

This wasn’t mopping up. This wasn’t the one throwaway series that Toledo had promised for Olson. This wasn’t a tryout.

This was real, so real that even other players are thinking, if Toledo would use Olson in that risky situation so soon in the season....

“Man, he must see something in him,” said safety Matt Ware.

You think?

Toledo acknowledged that he had only promised Olson one series, and said it was going to be in the second quarter.

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But he said he didn’t want to put him in after Paus threw an interception because it would make Paus look bad.

And then the Bruins roughed the Ram kicker on their ensuing possession and couldn’t get the ball before the end of the half.

“So at halftime, we talked about Cory going out there for one series, then Drew coming in,” said Toledo.

Paus, who was awful in the first half, completed five consecutive passes on that first drive. The only reason the Bruins didn’t score was that kicker Chris Griffith, as part of a dreadful night for Bruin special teams, missed his second field goal.

It didn’t matter.

“Drew was standing on the sidelines next to me in the first half, and I would ask him what play he would call, and he would get them all right,” Toledo said. “I was very impressed.”

So on the next series, Olson was given the ball. Four plays, one sack and one bad pass later, he was out, and that was that.

Or was it?

“I thought he looked pretty good, that we could give him a little more time,” said Toledo.

On UCLA’s next possession, early in the fourth quarter, with the Bruins still trailing, 13-7, and the ball around midfield ... Olson was still the quarterback.

But this is a football game, not the SAT. And while quarterbacks with no college experience are fun stories, they are rarely championship stories....

Olson interrupted those thoughts by completing two passes for 24 yards on a 52-yard drive that resulted in Akil Harris’ one-yard touchdown run.

Bringing on, you guessed it, Paus. The veteran played the rest of the game, led UCLA to two more touchdowns, and Toledo walked off the field smiling and winking like a mad inventor.

“Thank God it worked,” Paus said. “If it had not worked, there would have been some tough, tough questions.”

What happens now? The only thing certain: Saturday’s game exponentially increased the drama that has engulfed one of this town’s most intriguing coach-player relationships.

Watching Paus and Toledo this season will be like watching that crotchety old couple next door.

We’ll hear grumbling. We’ll sense discomfort. We’ll wish for peace. After all these years, that will probably be impossible.

Toledo is an offensive scientist. Paus is sandlot.

Toledo is precision. Paus is impromptu.

Toledo says to-may-toe, Paus says ... well, Paus says ketchup.

Perhaps because Toledo was unhappy with Paus’ failure to disclose his drunk-driving arrest and subsequent jail sentence last year, Paus is not one of the seven players featured on the front and back covers of this year’s media guide.

Imagine that. A Toledo team unwilling to feature a senior quarterback.

Throughout the spring and fall, Toledo also seemed unwilling to guarantee Paus a starting spot even though his top two backups are freshmen.

Guess he was serious.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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