A statistic that startles: Since 1989, over a period of 16 seasons, UCLA has had as many without a winning record as with a winning record...

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LOS ANGELES — A statistic that startles: Since 1989, over a period of 16 seasons, UCLA has had as many without a winning record as with a winning record.

It is that mediocrity, but specifically the growing pains of the first two years of coach Karl Dorrell’s regime, that UCLA aims to turn around in 2005.

“It seems like it’s time for a change,” said defensive tackle Kevin Brown. “Mediocrity is just not gonna swing it anymore around here. The history of the school, the prestige of it, won’t allow us to be away for too long.”

Nor, presumably, will the fans and the alumni. While Dorrell says resolutely, “UCLA is ready to take that next step,” a juicy rumor will continue to make the rounds: If Dorrell doesn’t push the Bruins to a winning season or demonstrate an uptick in the program, he could be replaced by former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, who now coaches quarterbacks with the Baltimore Ravens.

Whether UCLA would ever touch the radioactive Neuheisel — a favorite son, sort of — under any circumstances is speculation. So is its disposition about making any sort of change after Dorrell got a two-year extension last December, stretching him to 2010 in Westwood. He has scoffed at the suggestion his job is in jeopardy.

Dorrell has had the misfortune of having to rebuild the Bruins at a time when USC got hotter than Stephen A. Smith. And while he and the Bruins mostly shrug at that juxtaposition, it’s an inescapable comparison in Los Angeles.

“You just kind of blow it off,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis, describing the attempts at contrast. “You can’t sit here and think about things you could have done in the past. You’ve got to live for today.”

Bruins at a glance

Coach: Karl Dorrell, 3rd year (12-13).

Playmakers: RB Maurice Drew, C Mike McCloskey, TE Marcedes Lewis, LB Spencer Havner, K Justin Medlock.

2004: 6-6 (4-4 in Pac-10), lost to Wyoming in Las Vegas Bowl.

Bud Withers

Said Dorrell, “I’m not frustrated to the point where I’m comparing myself to USC. There’s a lot of issues I need to take care of in my own backyard.”

Here’s the good part about this year’s Bruins: They’re talented enough that there won’t be any hedging. Either they succeed at a significant level, or if they don’t, it will be apparent that they’re not making appreciable progress under Dorrell.

No doubt, he was left with considerable housekeeping issues by predecessor Bob Toledo. After a 6-7 beginning in 2003, UCLA gave clear indications early last year of improvement, helped by an injection of enthusiasm and toughness from Snohomish product Tom Cable as offensive coordinator.

At 5-3, the Bruins then went through a wild mood swing. They lost as a 14-point favorite at home to Washington State; went to Eugene and essentially knocked Oregon out of the bowl picture; scared USC in a five-point loss; and finally, did a face-plant against Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl, 24-21.

Recalling the bowl game, Lewis says, “It was just like, ‘You gotta be kidding me, man. This can’t be true.’ “

That, however, only serves to amplify that the Bruins didn’t take Wyoming seriously. Says Brown, “We’re thinking, they couldn’t beat us. But you know, they outplayed us. They outprepared us. We watched film, but we probably weren’t thinking we have to prepare as well as we did the SC game.”

That has given rise to one of UCLA’s offseason watchwords: Focus. Take care of the little details. And learn from the past.

For his part, Dorrell insists he has. Consistently, he has maintained he’s a work in progress.

“Terry Donahue [his coach at UCLA in the early 1980s] mentioned to me, ‘Karl, you’re never born a head coach. You become a head coach,’ ” Dorrell said. “You can’t be as good at things like that until you actually go through them.”

The Bruins have an arsenal that should put them in the better-bowl picture. There are four offensive-line starters back, plus Maurice Drew, who rushed for 1,007 yards. Lewis, the most athletic tight end in the conference, had 32 receptions and is the best returning receiver.

Who will be throwing is the predominant issue at UCLA. Senior Drew Olson has started 26 games, including the Vegas bowl in which he went out with a serious knee injury. But Ben Olson is more physically gifted; he went to BYU, took a Mormon mission and then transferred out.

“He’s a physical dude, a big kid,” Lewis said, describing the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Olson.

UCLA has an excellent linebacking corps, led by 2004 Pac-10 tackles leader Spencer Havner. The line, mostly back, was a wreck early last year, resulting in a league-worst 210 rushing yards a game allowed. But it improved down the stretch, giving up no more than 121 yards on the ground in three of the last six games.

Dorrell believes there’s more depth, and more competition.

“We haven’t completely learned how to compete yet,” he said. “You get it by competing against each other. The only way you get better is if you know you’ve got somebody pushing you.”

That could apply to the coach, too.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

The schedule
Four straight early home games, including one with Oklahoma, could propel the Bruins to a big start.
Date Opponent, time
Sept. 3 @ S.D. St., 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Sept. 10 Rice, 7 p.m. (FSN2)
Sept. 17 Oklahoma, 12:30 p.m. (ABC)
Oct. 1 Washington, TBA
Oct. 8 California, TBA
Oct. 15 @ Washington State, TBA
Oct. 22 Oregon St., TBA
Oct. 29 @ Stanford, TBA
Nov. 5 @ Arizona, TBA
Nov. 12 Arizona State, 4 p.m. (ABC)
Dec. 3 @ USC, 1:30 p.m. (ABC)