LOS ANGELES - It's no surprise that college football's leading passer this season plays in Los Angeles.
Few would have predicted, however, that it would be Drew Olson of UCLA and not 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart of Southern California.
"He's played as good as anybody in the country," ULCA coach Karl Dorrell said of his senior signal-caller.
Olson has blossomed after three mostly mediocre seasons. He ranks first in the country with a 172.5 passing efficiency rating and has led the 11th-ranked Bruins to a 9-1 record.
Olson's passer rating puts him ahead of Texas' Vince Young, second at 169.8, and Leinart, fourth at 161.9.
With UCLA's Dec. 3 game against Leinart and No. 1 USC remaining, Olson has thrown 30 touchdown passes to tie for the top spot in the nation with Texas Tech's Cody Hodges and - rather incredibly - has had only three of his 322 passes picked off. Hodges has thrown 12 interceptions.
Leinart, who has watched from the bench in the second half of several lopsided wins, has thrown 24 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
While Olson can't remember all his scoring throws, he can recall his interceptions - probably because there are so few of them.
"Vividly," he said, shaking his head. "One, my hand was grabbed. Another was deflected by a linebacker. The other was just a bad throw, a bad read."
Olson has made a quite a turnaround for a player whose future seemed in doubt after offseason knee surgery forced him miss spring practice. Even when he recovered more quickly than expected and returned for fall camp, he wasn't assured the starting job.
He wasn't named the starter until after highly touted newcomer Ben Olson (no relation) injured his throwing hand shortly before the season opener.
"I think I've enjoyed it more, having coming through some lows and being able to end my career here on a high note," Olson said. "It's been a fun ride this season. My joy really is in trying to get this program back to another level, and that's what I take pride in, what this year's seniors take pride in.
"It's not so much the individual accolades or success, but building respect for this program. That was our biggest goal going into this season."
Olson was the starter most of his freshman year, when the Bruins went 8-5. Then, he struggled along with his teammates the next two seasons, going 6-7 and 6-6 after Dorrell replaced Bob Toledo as coach.
This year, he has rallied UCLA to five late comeback victories, earning the nickname "Mr. Crunch Time" from Dorrell, who said Olson also deserves to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.
"He's earned it," Dorrell said. "He's proven it consistently throughout the season. He deserves it, that's for sure."
It took a couple of years, but Olson and the Bruins have adjusted to Dorrell's style of offense. They are averaging 444 yards a game, including Olson's averages of 291 yards passing and three touchdowns per contest.
He threw for five touchdowns to rally the Bruins past Washington State on Oct. 15, then broke Cade McNown's school record the following week by passing for six TDs in a rout of Oregon State.
"When he is playing hot there is no stopping him," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter. "When he's on he does very well, but when he's off he plays average."
Olson certainly was hot against ASU, passing for 510 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-35 victory as the Bruins bounced back from a stunning 52-14 loss at Arizona.
Teammate Maurice Drew said Olson's passing isn't his only contribution to the Bruins' turnaround this year.
"When he was hurt in spring, usually if a guy gets hurt and he's fighting for a spot, he might be selfish," the Bruins' tailback said. "Drew did the total opposite. He helped Ben Olson, David Koral, Pat Cowan, did a great job of making sure they understood the offense.
"Then in camp, he competed and won his spot. That tells you what kind of a competitor he is, to come back from a torn ACL to do what he did to be our starting quarterback. He's a leader and everybody respects him."