Bruins Staying in an Owl Mood

Times Staff Writer

Sporting a thick, dark goatee and a buzz cut, fifth-year UCLA linebacker Spencer Havner has the hardened look of a veteran.

Gone is the wide-eyed happy face a bushy-haired Havner showed as a freshman. Now, there’s a hard sneer to go with an attitude.

Too many losses, too many “What’s wrong with the Bruins?” can do that to a football player.


Although UCLA (1-0) is a heavy favorite over Rice tonight at the Rose Bowl, Havner and his teammates are tending to business. Their goal is to dominate the Owls.

“We have to stay focused and not underestimate our opponent,” said Havner, who had an interception and 13 tackles, three of them for losses, in the Bruins’ 44-21 victory over San Diego State last week.

“We have to stay disciplined and remember to keep playing really hard on every play.”

Since Havner has been at UCLA, the Bruins have fallen into the habit of playing down to the level of their opponents. Last season, that led to a 31-29 home loss to Washington State and an embarrassing 24-21 loss to Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl.

A substandard effort tonight would certainly put a damper on UCLA’s optimistic outlook.

“I’m not really worried because I feel that we have a good grasp on things; we have good leadership,” Havner said. “Did you see us at practice? You can see how fired up everyone is. We’re hungry.”

Havner was referring to the Bruins’ “Night at the Fights” practice Wednesday, which featured a couple of heated shoving matches among teammates.

It was linebacker Fred Holmes vs. offensive tackle Robert Cleary. Holmes vs. running back Chris Markey. Quarterback Osaar Rasshan vs. quarterback Brian Callahan. Offensive guard Shannon Tevaga vs. Havner.

Two tussles evolved into fights that had to be broken up. But after practice, the fighters, er, players, were all smiles and teammates again.

A couple of years ago, fights were rare, but bickering was prevalent and went on for weeks.

“We’re just really hyped now and playing together as a team,” Havner said. “We have a good mixture of older players and young guys.... We have relationships on this team and that’s what is so sweet about this year.”

Tonight’s game will be Rice’s season opener, but the Owls’ multiple-look offense figures to test the Bruins on defense. Rice led the nation in rushing in 2004.

“We’re going into the game not really knowing what to expect, so we have to have the attitude where we’re going to line up and play our defense,” coordinator Larry Kerr said. “Our goal is to be better disciplined than we were last week and to tackle a little bit better.”

When Rice has sophomore Joel Armstrong at quarterback, the Bruins will have their hands full. Armstrong led the Owls in rushing last season with 608 yards in 114 attempts. He can turn a missed tackle into an 80-yard touchdown run.

Rice has several other swift backs who can hurt the Bruins, including Quinton Smith, Tommy Henderson, Marcus Rucker and Thomas Lott, son of the former Oklahoma quarterback of the same name.

“You can’t simulate the speed of a team like Rice in practice,” Kerr said. “You do the best you can, trying to get formations and blocking schemes down. But being able to get your scout team to run it at the pace that they run their offense is something that you can’t really do.”

Against San Diego State, two UCLA defensive linemen started for the first time. Sophomore end Nikola Dragovic played so well that he was given a game ball for his effort -- four tackles, one a sack -- but redshirt freshman tackle Nathaniel Skaggs struggled.

With junior tackle Kevin Brown still on crutches and sidelined indefinitely, the Bruins are looking for a player to emerge as a starter next to sophomore tackle Brigham Harwell, junior end Justin Hickman and Dragovic.

Freshman Chase Moline is expected to get his chance tonight and sophomore Kenneth Lombard will also play. Havner said UCLA needed the young linemen to play responsibly against Rice.

“If you have an assignment, you have to do it,” he said.

According to Coach Karl Dorrell, tonight’s challenge will be on the entire Bruin defense.

“No doubt, the perimeter of our defense has to be sound,” he said. “We have to have somebody for the quarterback and somebody for the pitch. Most importantly, we have to tackle.

“It starts with the dive play, though. They do a nice job of running their option scheme, where you have to have discipline in your defense. If you don’t have discipline, that’s where they can hurt you.”

A pain UCLA doesn’t want to experience again.