Undefeated UCLA goes to air; joins lofty football company

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From its vantage point in the penthouse of college football's major unbeaten teams, the University of California at Los Angeles, or UCLA as its more commonly known, now has only Washington, Stanford, and Southern Cal left on its horizon.

In baseball terminology, that's like a good hitting, high scoring team having to face pitchers such as Steve Carlton, Fernando Valenzuela, and Steve Rogers on successive weekends.

The 7-0-1 UCLA Bruins, as well-balanced as they are strong, probably won't win all three games. But they might win two, which would surely get them a bowl game invitation, although not necessarily to the Rose Bowl, where Arizona State is the current favorite.

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Nevertheless UCLA fans can't help basking in the reflected glory of Coach Terry Donahue's pass-oriented offense after years of having the Bruins labeled too conservative and predictable.

Donahue, of course, has never thought of his offense in that context. He keeps up with things; reads all the latest football books; goes to all the best coaching clinics. But once you get a reputation for playing it close to the vest , it's often hard to break.

A disciple of the Fit-the-System-to-the-Material School of Football, Terry can't necessarily be faulted for what hundreds of coaches have been doing for years, and that's playing the percentages. Most of the time it works, too, if you've got the horses.

For example, if you have a Tony Dorsett you run; if you have a John Elway you pass. And if you don't have either, then you tell everyone you're building character and hope that your punter's hang time is in the vicinity of five seconds. Then at least you have a chance of holding the score down.

Since Donahue has had the same starting quarterback for three years now (Tom Ramsey), you have to wonder why Terry waited until this season to make changes in his offense. Actually, the signs were always there. The light bulbs simply hadn't been screwed in place yet or the cord plugged in.

Actually the Bruins ranked third in passing in the Pacific 10 Conference last season. Further improvement has come through Ramsey's continuing maturity, the team soaking up more of Donahue's system, plus a far greater number of options on offense.

Ramsey, who can throw short, long, and while being chased, will probably finish the season with every UCLA passing record worth owning. That would put him ahead of former Bruin QB Gary Beban, who carried home a Heisman Trophy for his trouble. Tom also gets high marks for the way he reads and understands defenses.

''The main reason I've got the numbers this year is because I'm throwing more and because I'm throwing to a lot of talented people,'' Ramsey told reporters. ''When you feel confident in what you're doing and you get to work behind a line that gives you time to throw, it has to make you that much more effective.''

The pass catchers that Ramsey values so highly are Paul Bergmann and wide receiver Cormac Carney, who seems to have radar in the tips of his fingers. Carney, a psychology major with the potential to become a Rhodes Scholar, probably does his best work in the clutch. Then there is Jojo Townsend, a small but quick flanker, whose style often causes defensive backs to look the other way.

Yet also flashing brilliantly under UCLA's friendly skies this year has been the Bruins' all-purpose defense, which has made this the toughest Donahue team ever to run against. Terry is no one-way coach, but one who spreads his practice time evenly and who is not afraid to delegate some of his authority, if that's what it takes to get the job done.

To fully appreciate Donahue, first you have to understand his dedication. As a UCLA player under Pepper Rodgers, he was a walk-on lineman who ended up starting for two years. As a UCLA assistant coach under Dick Vermeil, he was somehow able to mix professionalism with a schoolboy enthusiasm that seemed to generate extra motivation from his players.

Although the thought of someday being UCLA's head coach was always in the back of Donahue's mind, there was no way he could have guessed it would happen at age 31. But when Vermeil suddenly quit the Bruins in February of 1976 to become coach of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, Terry got the break of a lifetime.

Rather than bring in someone from outside who didn't know the personnel or the situation, former UCLA athletic director J. D. Morgan decided to upgrade Donahue. What Morgan got for his gamble was one of the finest young coaches in the country.

Whether Terry can produce a Pac-10 title this year is still a matter of speculation. But if the Bruins should knock off once-beaten Washington this weekend, almost anything is possible.

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