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QB competition has brought out the best in Drew Olson

He knew what folks were saying. They were excited about the other guy -- the strapping, talented freshman. Word was this new recruit could ensure that UCLA didn't surrender Los Angeles without a fight.

UCLA was going to be about Drew and Olson, but not Drew Olson.

When Bruins quarterback Drew Olson's left knee caved in during an embarrassing Las Vegas Bowl defeat to Wyoming two days before Christmas, many thought his career was over. He tore both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Rehabilitation could take up to a year.

But forget the injury. That was only part of it. Ben Olson, everybody's prep All-American, had opted to come to UCLA after a two-year Mormon mission. It would be Ben Olson, the conventional wisdom went, teaming with stumpy, stealthy junior tailback Maurice Drew to restore the Bruins' program.

Drew Olson heard the whispers. He read the stories. It drove him every day over the summer to do a few more burning reps in order to strengthen the dead person's tendon with which a doctor had reroped his knee.

"I'd have been screwed if I had sweated out all the stories," he said. "It pisses you off hearing that."

Yet here he is, two games into his senior season, the clear victor in a quarterback duel, now owning two easy victories that evened his career record at 14-14.

This weekend he has a chance to make a real mark. He has a chance to be remembered and to turn the trajectory of coach Karl Dorrell's three-year tenure at UCLA in a winning direction.

A vulnerable Oklahoma team will visit the Rose Bowl on Saturday, and Olson knows a victory would send a message to the nation -- not to mention to uneasy fans jealously obsessing about rival USC -- that the Bruins are back.

"This game is huge for us. I think it will answer a lot of questions," Olson said.

Questions? Olson appears ready to answer those concerning him. He's completed 70 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions as he heads toward a final resting place at No. 2 on the Bruins' all-time passing yardage list.

"He's bounced back awfully quickly," Dorrell said. "He's a much better player now than he's ever been. Probably this injury and the competition he's had at quarterback has made him into the player he is now.
He has a lot of confidence and he's moving around the pocket a lot better. He seems even faster afoot than he was before the injury."

Olson's career has mirrored the fortunes of the mercurial Bruins in the past three years.

He played well in relief of injured starter Cory Paus as a true freshman in 2002, but then the coach who recruited him, Bob Toledo, was fired and replaced by Dorrell.

Not only was he beaten out by Matt Moore to start the 2003 season, word leaked that the pair didn't like each other and their conflict divided the locker room. He eventually regained the starting job, though his play was consistently mediocre. Moore, always the more outspoken of the two, opted to transfer to Oregon State.

Moore, now the Beavers starter, will visit his old stomping grounds on Oct. 22, when he surely will be greeted warmly.

Olson's numbers were solid last year. He passed for 2,565 yards with 20 touchdowns, which made him the fourth UCLA quarterback to throw for 20 or more touchdowns in a season. He was fourth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency.

But for a guy who needs 1,095 yards to end up behind only Cade McNown on UCLA's passing list, Olson sure hasn't received much love from the Bruins' faithful. Again, it's that winning thing. That's why his injury inspired sympathy but little mourning.

"It was the first time I laid on a football field and couldn't get up," he said. It might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

He's in the best shape of his life. He's dropped about 20 pounds and looks more athletic than ever before. Moreover, he said he's never felt more relaxed than his season-opening start at San Diego State.

"I've been through so much I just wanted to enjoy playing football," he explained. "[The rehabilitation] makes you discover so much about yourself. I really learned about the type of work ethic you can have. It was the hardest I've ever worked."

He wasn't alone in growing.

Despite incessant talk about being on the hot seat in his third season, Dorrell is clearly more comfortable running the program and that shows in how he interacts with his players.

Olson said Dorrell seems to be having more fun and is showing more emotion, and the team is feeding off that.

"People have bought into what he's doing," Olson said. "But one thing is for sure. His demands on us haven't changed. I'd say the expectations have increased."

As well they should. Besides a resurgent Olson, the Bruins boast perhaps the nation's most athletic tight end in Marcedes Lewis as well as Drew, who is becoming far more than a poor man's Reggie Bush.

UCLA scored 107 points in its first two games. But San Diego State and Rice certainly are not Oklahoma, even if the Sooners have yet to find their mojo this year.

Olson and the Bruins know about being lost, mocked and written off. A win over Oklahoma could serve as a reintroduction.

"This is a game when you do whatever is necessary to win," Olson said. "There will be no holding back."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.