On a Saturday night almost exactly a year ago 66,000 people were in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum. The lights were blazing, and Bill Bolden, a tall second-string UCLA sophomore quarterback, tensed himself to receive Tennessee's opening kickoff. The football floated lazily toward him like a child's balloon and then, oops, Bolden dropped it.
The Vols recovered the fumble and in four plays they had a touchdown. It was embarrassing. Eventually that night, as had happened so many times before and would happen again as the season progressed, UCLA's All-America quarterback bailed out the Bruins. They managed to get past Tennessee 20-16, a team that proved to be so good it did not lose another game.
Now, for the first time in years, UCLA—and Bolden—are going to find out what life is like without Gary Beban. The Great One, as they called him in L.A., had carried the Bruins to a 24-5-2 record in three seasons. During that period he broke most of UCLA's offensive records, and one could excuse Coach Tommy Prothro for being choked up when Gary left last June. Prothro, however, is not truly crying, for the well of talent at UCLA is far from dried up and the Prothro genius for outsmarting opponents can hardly have diminished.
Bolden is the No. 1 quarterback now, and it is only natural that he feels the burden of his new responsibilities. "It's not so much exciting as it is frightening," he says. "Everybody will be comparing me with Beban, a guy who was all-world and all-universe. It's like putting a size-2 shoe into a size-14 box."
After the trauma against Tennessee, there were occasions last year when Bolden fitted that size-14 shoebox very nicely. For example, he made a twisting 56-yard touchdown run against Washington State, and in the Syracuse game he hit Split End Ron Copeland on a 96-yard touchdown pass play.
Bolden excels as a long passer, but at shorter ranges he has his difficulties. His passes tend to float, a critical flaw against any moderately alert defense. But what Bolden can always do instead of throwing a short pass is give the ball to Bolden—for this quarterback runs even better than Beban. "He has more speed and ball-carrying skill than Beban," says Prothro. At 6'3" and 207 pounds, Bolden is stronger and tougher in the open field than The Great One.
Prothro speaks with a golden tongue about Bill Bolden, but that might be because Bolden is the only quarterback UCLA has. Still, Prothro insists that he is not gilding a lonely lily, and he adds seriously, "I just hope the rest of the team can measure up to Bolden. You know, I said that about Gary Beban three years ago and everyone thought I was crazy."
It could be that Bolden's uncertain arm will be used primarily as a threatening tactic to keep defenses from crowding up close to smother UCLA's good running game. Yet any team with the caliber of receivers that UCLA has would be foolish not to pass now and then. Ron Copeland, the 6'4" split end who does the 120-yard hurdles in 13.5, Hal Busby, a 9.4 sprinter, and Wing-back George Farmer, who does 9.8, are the kind of receivers who will catch their share of passes if Bolden just throws the ball up in the air somewhere. So there is logic to Prothro's offensive philosophy: "We'll let the opponent's defense call our plays for us. If they tighten up, we'll throw. If they spread, we'll run."
The likelihood is that the opposition will tighten up, for UCLA probably will be far surer afoot than aloft. Bolden will be a constant running threat on the option play. Tailback Greg Jones does not have great speed, but he is a driving type who breaks tackles well and last year averaged a most impressive six yards a carry. Behind Jones, for the moment, is sophomore Mickey Cureton, a homebred high school All-America who was sought by innumerable colleges. He is short and broad—5'9" and 185 pounds—moves in spurts and jerks, and is slightly faster than Jones. Fullback Rick Purdy is a sturdy blocker and good inside runner, and George Farmer, a junior, is the No. 1 wing-back over the fleet Hal Busby. Farmer, 6'4", 212 pounds, was the Bruin sensation during spring drills. In one scrimmage he scored on 56-, 67- and 13-yard runs, gained 154 yards in five carries and caught a barrage of passes. Prothro was impressed. "Ever since I've been here," he says, "we've been looking for a wingback who can run like a ballcarrier, receive like a split end and block like a lineman. Farmer can do all three."
Despite this talent in back, the UCLA offense has problems because there is trouble up front, where six of last year's linemen are gone. Prothro says that "the offensive line has to be rebuilt entirely. Oh, it's as good as what we lost as far as pure, raw, latent talent is concerned. But it is woefully lacking in experience and that is vital to springing our backs loose."
Tackle Gordon Bosserman is the only survivor from 1967. He will be surrounded by players who, except for Copeland, have seen little action. The most noteworthy of these are second-string Fullback Mike Garratt, who has been moved to tight end, and 221-pound sophomore Scott Steele, who will play the other tackle.
If the UCLA offense shudders to a stop, there is still Zenon Andrusyshyn, the German-born, Ukrainian-raised Canadian citizen who kicks soccer-style. Last year he averaged 44.2 yards on his punts—the best in the country—kicked 31 of 35 extra points and made 11 field goals. His foot means that UCLA is a scoring threat from anywhere inside of its 50-yard line.
Because of the uncertainties about the offense, it is well the Bruin defense is exceptional, perhaps the best in Prothro's four years at UCLA. Except for the deep secondary, where Halfback Mark Gustafson is the lone returnee, the defense is a seasoned, savage crew. The tackles are 249-pound Larry Agajanian, son of old pro Placekicker Ben, and 214-pound Floyd Reese. The ends are Vince Bischof and Hal Griffin—all of whom Prothro considers "better than anyone we had last year."
Prothro, following a national trend, is going to a 4-4-3 defense, and if anybody slips by his front line, the next quartet is a challenging one. On the inside are Mike Ballou and Don Widmer. At the corners are Dick Davidson and Kim Griffith. The best is Ballou, 6'3", 220 pounds, who is nicknamed The Cat (for his quickness, Prothro trusts, and not because of any resemblance to Jane Fonda). Ballou is considered better than Don Manning, UCLA's 1967 All-America linebacker.
Except for Penn State, it is unlikely that the Bruins will be pressed terribly hard in their first six games. But then, in a grim series of potential disasters, they must face Tennessee, Oregon State and Washington on the road and, for a painful finale, USC at home. And there will be no Great One to bail them out. Unless, by then, his name is Bill Bolden.