A lot has been made about UCLA's' gaudy offensive totals early this season, and rightfully so, but one of the big keys to UCLA's 36-30 upset victory over Nebraska on Saturday was a much-improved defense in the second half.
The Bruins started out aggressive in the first half with complex blitzing schemes in an effort to get Cornhuskers' quarterback Taylor Martinez out of rhythm, but dialed it back to a mostly base defense in the second half.
The result? The defense sealed the game.
Nebraska had 24 points and 333 yards of offense in the first half, but only a pair of field goals and 106 yards in the second half. Not only that, but defensive plays were the biggest for the Bruins in the fourth quarter.
A Datone Jones safety gave UCLA a 29-27 lead with 8:44 to play and an interception by Andrew Abbott with 3:07 to play gave UCLA the ball at the Nebraska 16. Three plays later, Johnathan Franklin scored a game-sealing touchdown that gave the Bruins a 36-27 lead.
"We boiled it down in terms of our call structure," coach Jim Mora said Sunday after watching the game film. "We didn’t pressure, I don’t believe, one time in the second half. When we pressured in the first half we gave up some plays."
Nebraska beat the UCLA pressure by outrunning it in the first half. The Cornhuskers had 184 yards rushing at halftime, but rushed for only 76 in the second half. The pass defense was even better, holding Martinez to no completions in the fourth quarter after he went 13 of 17 for 149 yards in the first half. He finished 17 of 31 for 179 yards.
"We just cut down on our playbook and went back to the basics," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "We made it more simple: Just do your job. We stressed that on the sideline that if you just do your job, everything will be all right."
This is the second week in a row that UCLA has used halftime adjustments on defense to help win a game. The Bruins shut out Rice in the second half of a 49-24 victory in Week 1. But it's also the second week in a row that UCLA has given up 24 points in the first half.
Mora said it was simply a product of not controlling the quarterbacks and credited Nebraska's offense rather acknowledging a slow start for UCLA's defense.
"I’m not certain that you call it a slow start," he said. "Teams score points in college football and that’s a really good offense. They are obviously capable of scoring a lot of points so I think sometimes it’s important to give credit where credit is due."
Still, defensive players are not resting easy knowing they have given up 24 points in the first half two weeks in a row. Abbott, a defensive captain, said he would stress the importance of a strong start this week and that simplifying things early should do the trick.
"We have a good enough defense where we can just play base coverage and base coverage and get after teams," Abbott said. "We just have to believe that. We can bring the pressures later, but I feel like early on we should establish a base, get our feet wet and get to going playing fast and get rocking."
Rank filed: UCLA was No. 22 in the Associated Press poll Sunday, ending a 78-poll streak in which the Bruins were not ranked. Mora was not impressed.
"It’s not something I’ve thought about, nor will I think about," he said. "I don’t think, for me personally, there is any significance in getting ranked after two weeks. It’s where you end up."
Still, Mora acknowledged that the recognition was nice for the fan base.
"To our fan base and our alumni and for the exposure it brings our school and our program, I think it’s a great thing," Mora said. "For the rest of the football team, it doesn’t matter."
Stat watch: Johnathan Franklin had his second consecutive 200-yard rushing game and now leads the nation with 431 yards rushing. ...UCLA is second in the nation in rushing offense at 343.5 yards per game, trailing only triple-option Air Force (387). ...UCLA is third in the nation in total offense (649.5) and No. 18 in scoring (42.5 points per game).
Raising a flag: One wet blanket to UCLA's impressive first two games is the accumulation of penalties. The Briuns were flagged 11 times for 126 yards against Nebraska, bringing their two-game totals to 19 penalties for 233 yards. The 233 penalty yards are the most of any FBS team in the nation and the 19 penalties are tied for eighth most.
Some penalties, Mora said, he can live with, such as Damien Thigpen's call for catch interference on a punt against Nebraska, because they are aggressive plays based on player instinct. Other penalties, however, don't sit well with Mora.
"The pre-snap penalties that we sometimes get on offense, those are the ones that can be frustrating because those are concentration penalties," Mora said. "The illegal block in the back on the kickoff after safety that costs you field position. You worry about those because those are judgment errors."
Mora said he's confident that his players understand the importance of cleaning up the penalties.
"Our kids really understand it and I really believe that they’ll improve upon it," he said. "They take it serious. They don’t laugh at things like that. They don’t say ‘oh well, I’ll get ‘em next time.’ They’re very serious about it."
Injury update: Quarterback Brett Hundley was limping noticeably Saturday after the Nebraska game, but Mora said his ankle was "good" on Sunday. Hundley left the game briefly after sliding awkwardly early in the third quarter. He got his ankle taped and finished the game. Mora said he did not require X-rays or an MRI.
Cornerback Sheldon Price (dizziness) and receiver Darius Bell (concussion) sat out of Saturday's game, but Mora said he expected them to practice on Tuesday. He said there were no other injuries from Saturday's game that would keep players out of practice this week.