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Steady Strides

Times Staff Writer

For Drew Olson, the path to Saturday’s regular-season finale against top-ranked USC has had its bumpy stretches, but the UCLA quarterback found a groove in his last game against Oregon. His passing wasn’t special -- 12 completions in 21 tries for 215 yards and a touchdown -- but his rushing was extraordinary in the 34-26 triumph at hostile Eugene.

He had a 14-yard scramble on third and 10 from the Bruin 46 that led to a failed Justin Medlock field-goal attempt, and on the next drive he sprinted for 12 yards on third and 16 from the Bruin 14, giving Chris Kluwe a comfort zone from which to punt.

In the second quarter he rushed for nine yards on first and 10 to help sustain a drive that ultimately led to a four-yard Manuel White touchdown run that gave UCLA a 21-10 lead with 9 minutes 16 seconds to play before halftime.

And so it went in a pivotal game for the Bruins, the team reeling from a disappointing loss a week earlier, needing at least one victory in their final two games to ensure a bowl appearance and avoid posting a losing record for the second consecutive season.

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Olson had only 59 yards in nine carries, but his timing was impeccable. That and his refusal to throw into coverage stood out as key elements in the victory. He took three sacks for losses totaling 20 yards, revealing a side not often seen in the junior quarterback.

“This was the best I’ve seen him, in terms of being in control and managing the huddle and managing the sidelines,” offensive coordinator Tom Cable said.

Cable would not speculate on whether Olson had reached the point where he felt comfortable in high-pressure situations.

“Every time we take steps forward, you want to believe that we’re actually there,” Cable said. “But you also want to keep going and get better and better.”

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Olson is no Matt Leinart, the USC quarterback-Heisman Trophy hopeful. But he also is not the same player who spent most of last season learning the complicated West Coast offense.

He passed for 2,067 yards as a sophomore but stalled with the rest of the team as it lost its final five games and finished with one of the nation’s least productive offensive units.

This season, Olson has completed 170 of 295 passes for 2,191 yards and 18 touchdowns, and runs an offense that ranks 18th among 117 Division I-A teams, with an average output of 431.4 yards. (USC is 15th at 439.6 yards.) He has thrown 11 interceptions, four of them after deflections.

“He’s been progressing throughout the whole season,” senior receiver Craig Bragg said. “He’s getting better every game. He’s making the right reads and he’s taking off [running] and throwing the ball away when he needs to. He’s just doing the things that a quarterback needs to in order to win a game.”

Jim Svoboda, who coaches Bruin quarterbacks, suggests that there are several areas where Olson can improve: He sometimes stares down his receivers too long. He could react faster to defensive shifts. To feel fully comfortable in the pocket, he needs to trust his protection, and when the protection breaks down he needs “to stay within himself.”

But, Svoboda added, Olson has made strides in all of those areas and in the Oregon game he played within himself from start to finish.

“I think what he’s finally figured out is that he’s just got to go out there and play, and kind of get out of his own way,” Svoboda said. “He’s doing much better at just seeing the whole picture.”

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Those close to Olson say he has matured as a player and as a person, which is understandable. He’s 21, a junior in college and saddled with heaps of responsibility.

He seems to be handling it well enough, though he said he spends restless nights after losses, especially after poor performances on his part.

He tossed and turned for hours after the Bruins had surrendered an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lost to Arizona State, 48-42. It was a game the Bruins figure they should have won, and they might have had Olson not thrown four interceptions, one during a key drive late in the game.

Otherwise, it was a sterling effort -- he completed 30 of 44 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns -- and afterward all he could do was apologize for letting his teammates down.

“It was embarrassing,” he said of the Oct. 23 game at Tempe, one that would have given the Bruins their only victory over a ranked team. “I can always relive those four interceptions -- they’re so clear in my mind.”

Olson and the Bruins responded with a 21-0 victory over Stanford, but followed that with a 31-29 pratfall at home against lightly regarded Washington State. Against the Cougars, Olson staged a furious fourth-quarter rally with the Bruins trailing, 31-16, but the hill proved too steep.

He hardly slept that night, either, reliving an 18-for-38 effort good for only 201 yards, and another key interception deep in Cougar territory.

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Reminded that were it not for a porous defense -- one that ranks 105th nationally, yielding an average of 431.3 yards a game -- UCLA would probably have won both games, Olson shakes his head.

The young and inexperienced defensive line is struggling to mature and improve, he says, and until it reaches a certain level of consistency the quarterback can’t afford to make so many mistakes.

“If they were guys that didn’t care and weren’t working as hard as they are, then it’d be a little different,” Olson said, pointing out that after what he went through last season he can relate to what they’re going through. “But they care just as much as we do and they’re our teammates, so we live and die with them.”

Suddenly, at 5-4, UCLA was left with only Oregon and USC on its schedule. It started to feel like last season all over again for a team that had boasted for months that things would be different this time around.

A loss to the Ducks, always tough at home, would have cast a pall over the Bruins for the three weeks they had to prepare for the Trojans -- whom they haven’t beaten since 1998.

But now, there’s an air of confidence at Spaulding Field as the 6-4 bowl-bound Bruins prepare for a showdown they believe they can win, though they acknowledge it would require their best effort yet.

“They have a lot of weapons and they have one of the best defenses we’ve faced,” Olson said. “But people have put up points on them. It’s definitely going to be a true test of how we are.”

And of how far the quarterback has come.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

For Starters

Saturday will be Drew Olson’s third start at quarterback for UCLA against USC. How he fared the first two times, both losses:

*--* 2002 2003 Completions 8 21 Attempts 17 39 Yards 121 266 Touchdowns 0 1 Interceptions 1 1 Score 52-21 47-22

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