Ball's basic instinct a good one

Originally Published: October 4, 2003
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

PASADENA, Calif. -- So how exactly did UCLA overcome a 13-0 deficit to No. 17 Washington and go on to outscore the Huskies 46-3? Credit two shrewd adjustments. One the Bruin coaches called for -- shifting supersized cornerback Matt Ware onto Washington's giant wideout Reggie Williams midway through the second quarter.

The other maneuver? Well, actually that was one the Bruins coaches really didn't want. Good thing for them UCLA senior defensive end Dave Ball isn't too shy about improvising.

Ball, the Bruins' top pass rusher in 2002 (11.5 sacks), was getting frustrated in the first half by Washington's short passing game. He also noticed Husky offensive tackle Khalif Barnes' tendency to overstep in his pass sets. Ball told Bruin D-line coach Don Johnson he wanted to knife inside. Johnson wasn't buying it, Ball said. But on the Huskies' first play from scrimmage in the second half, with the ball at the UW 7-yard line, Cody Pickett went on a half-roll right, Barnes, just as he had been doing most of the first half, overstepped and Ball swam right underneath him, blowing inside, knocking the ball free from the Huskies QB. UCLA DT Rodney Leisle pounced on the ball in the end zone and the Bruins were within two.

"I just did it on instinct," Ball explained.

The touchdown came on Leisle's first play of the game. (He had to sit out the first half because of a one-game suspension for fighting last week.) Leisle's powerful presence inside also afforded Ball more room to operate in the second half because the Huskies opted not to keep their tight end on Ball's side as much as they did in the first half. Ball (3.5 sacks) would be in Pickett's chest the rest of the game. Couple that with the Bruins' coverage adjustment -- having Ware shadow Williams and bringing their safeties up -- and Pickett would have a much different second half after going 21-for-29 for 218 yards to open the game.

Before 6-foot-3, 225-pound Ware moved from his right corner position, Williams had beaten UCLA for six catches and a touchdown in the game's first 20 minutes. (On his TD, Williams had started out across from Ware, but he went in motion to the right side of the formation and came uncovered in the back of the end zone for an easy six.) Williams ended up catching 10 passes, but only two came on Ware (both short hitch passes) -- although that doesn't count one play where Ware did get sucked in on a Pickett pump fake and had to hold Williams or else it would've been a sure TD. Of course, a penalty isn't as bad as surrendering a touchdown, and two plays later, Leisle would intercept a deflected ball.

It would be unfair to say Ware shut Williams down, but it wouldn't be a stretch to say he neutralized the All-American. And how he did it isn't much of a secret. "We've never played that much man before," Ware said. "But I'm glad we did."

The victory is the first Pac-10 win for rookie Bruins coach Karl Dorrell, a one-time Husky assistant. "We are fortunate with tonight's win and excited about where we are heading," Dorrell said. "This is the fifth week we have gotten better, and that is great to see. We see our potential now and know what we can become."

Not bad considering that two weeks ago, critics here in L.A. were all over the Bruins coach for repeatedly kicking to Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins, who ended up taking three punts back for touchdowns. Many thought they would get knocked off last week by San Diego State. But that didn't happen, and now, October's here and the Bruins are 3-2 and 1-0 in the conference. As for Ball, he says he'll probably hear from Johnson after the coach reviews the film tomorrow, "but," he says with a laugh, "that's OK, I'm not gonna be here that much longer."

Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.