PASADENA, Calif. -- After riding shotgun to the offense through the first two weeks of the season, the UCLA Bruins' defense took the lead role Saturday during a 37-6 victory over Houston.
And it came at just the right time, as UCLA's offense was out of synch for much of the game and needed a helping hand.
The Bruins held a high-octane Houston offense scoreless until a broken play late in the fourth quarter and had five interceptions against Cougars quarterback David Piland, who a week earlier had set an NCAA record for pass attempts without an interception.
Houston, which had nearly 700 yards in offense a week earlier, had only 388 against the Bruins. UCLA, which entered the game ranked No. 100 in the nation against the run, held Houston to -1 yards rushing in the first half Saturday, and one yard rushing through three quarters.
Piland broke an 86-yard touchdown run against a second-string UCLA defense with 4:54 to play, ending the shutout and bringing the Cougars' rushing total to 139 yards, but all in all it was an impressive defensive effort.
"We played outstanding defense tonight," coach Jim Mora said. "Except for one play, we played as good as I’ve seen a team play defense. We got after the passer, we covered well, we tackled well, we stopped the run, we did a lot of good things defensively. We had six takeaways, so that was pretty good."
The Bruins had gotten off to slow starts defensively in each of their first two games. They allowed 24 first-half points to Rice and Nebraska before making adjustments and shutting out Rice in the second half and holding Nebraska to two second-half field goals.
Saturday against Houston, the mindset was to start fast on defense. Linebacker Eric Kendricks obliged by scooping up a fumble on the second play of the game and running it 23 yards for a touchdown.
"We challenged them to play a complete game and as you could see on the field tonight, they played a complete game," defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said. "We still have to finish strong at the end of the game, but the players responded to the challenge and we’re making strides."
Turnovers keyed the breakout defensive game. Cornerback Sheldon Price tied a school record with three interceptions and the Bruins forced six turnovers for the game. Houston had only four turnovers in its first two games.
Mora said the Bruins used a man-to-man coverage scheme after playing mostly zone in the first two games and that seemed to cause problems for Houston, but the biggest difference, according to linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, was the mindset of the team from the opening kick.
"It was time for the defense to step up," Zumwalt said.
The Bruins' defense dominated the time-of-possession battle, 41:14-18:46, keeping the high-powered Houston offense off the field by limiting the Cougars to six of 20 third downs (30 percent). The Bruins had six tackles for a loss, including three by Datone Jones.
"The guys did a nice job on third downs," Spanos said. "The most important thing for a defense is getting the ball to our offense. Our guys know what our goals are and our objectives are and they responded well."
The only blemish on the day for the defense was Piland's 86-yard run at the end that spoiled the shutout.
"We wanted that shutout so bad, but you know it happens," Zumwalt said. "And since we didn't get it, it gives us something to strive for next week."