UCLA defense still searching for answers

The Bruins, so far this season, rank 106 out of 120 FBS teams in total defense. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

UCLA's defense could, mathematically, sink a little lower, but for all intents and purposes last Thursday at Arizona the Bruins hit rock bottom.

Now, they hope the recovery process can begin.

The Bruins gave up a season-high 573 yards in that 48-12 debacle at Arizona, with a perfect storm of missed tackles, poor communication, botched assignments and faulty schemes leading to the biggest blowout loss of the season for UCLA.

It continued a season-long trend of shoddy play that has the Bruins ranked No. 106 in the nation in total defense and has caused quite a bit of head scratching around Westwood. The Bruins were supposed to be solid on defense with a roster of talented players and a new defensive coordinator, Joe Tresey, who had been quite successful in previous stops at Cincinnati and South Florida.

Somewhere along the road to success at UCLA, however, there has been a disconnect and the UCLA defense is trying desperately to find out where that is.

"I think everyone is shocked, but what we can’t do is just let that shock continue and go into a shell," cornerback Andrew Abbott said. "Whenever you are playing this bad, you’re looking at it like, what’s wrong and you just try to find answers."

Many of those answers can be found on third down. The Bruins have allowed opponents to convert 61 third down opportunities--more than any team in the country. They rank No. 118 out of 120 FBS teams with a third-down conversion defense of 55.96 percent.

Of course many of those problems begin earlier. For example, Arizona last week gained 6.1 yards per play on first down, setting up a lot of second and short plays and leading to easy third-down conversions. It's a similar problem that has haunted the Bruins all season and if it doesn't get fixed, the second half of the season will get ugly.

"We just have to find a way to rally together and find a way to get off the field and stop pointing fingers at whatever," linebacker Patrick Larimore said. "We just have to put it on ourselves. There’s been a lack of communication sometimes on the field and I can’t really put it on one thing. It’s definitely been a struggle so far this year, but we have no choice but to move on. There is no running away from the fact that we have to keep playing."

For Tresey, it's a recurring nightmare. The season started off with a dismal debut at Houston, where UCLA gave up 469 yards in a 38-34 loss. Since then it's been an every-other-week defensive disaster. UCLA gave up 488 yards in a 49-20 loss to Texas and gave up 442 in a 45-19 loss to Stanford before the meltdown in the desert last week.

It adds up to an average of 493 yards and 45 points allowed in UCLA's four losses compared with 360.3 yards and 20.3 points in the Bruins' three victories.

"You know, sometimes it looks like we have our problems sorted out, but then the same things start to creep back in there," Tresey said. "I've got to do a better job coaching and the players have to do a better job executing. It's on everybody right now to man up and get through this."

In his previous stops, Tresey led formidable defenses. At Cincinnati in 2007 the Bearcats ranked No. 13 scoring defense (18.8 points per game) and 19th in rushing defense (114.2 yards per game). The nest season, Cincinnati ranked 31st in total defense (321.9 yards), 19th in rushing defense (115.0) and 25th in scoring defense (20.1 points).

In 2009, Tresey's defense at South Florida ranked 24th in total defense (321.8 yards) and 19th in scoring defense (19.8 points).

That's part of the reason coach Rick Neuheisel hired Tresey and, at least for now, is keeping his distance from the defensive problems.

"I’m involved with the defense from a standpoint of kind of just asking the questions to make sure that everything is—kind of like tilling the soil," Neuheisel said. "You have to keep churning things up. Ask the hard questions...But I trust our defensive coaches and I believe in them and I believe that they are absolutely working around the clock to make this go as best it can."

Last week, it didn't go all that well. Arizona had six first-half possessions and scored touchdowns on all six of them as the Wildcats raced to a 42-7 lead. It got out of control quickly and delivered a major blow to the confidence of an already shaky unit and fueled the discussion that UCLA's program was a shambles and Neuheisel would be fired before season's end.

Luckily, the Bruins had a couple of extra days to regroup. They took Friday and Saturday off before reconvening on Sunday for a light practice and in the meantime, athletic director Dan Guerrero gave Neuheisel a vote of confidence. Still, it was a long couple of days for the Bruins defense.

"It was a very depressing weekend," Larimore said. "I didn’t really know what to think after that game. I think after the game a lot of guys were really down. I was really down for the whole weekend just wondering how we could bounce back, but I feel much better after getting back out to practice. You can see that guys haven't given up."

Neither has Tresey. He's working on throwing a few wrenches into the defensive scheme to try and shore up some of the weaknesses. Normally a vocal instructor--OK, he's a screamer--he's been much more subdued this week. And, he's been very focused.

"I've got to make sure we're all on the same page," he said. "I've got to make sure these guys aren't doubting themselves. We've got a lot of season left."

Making the most of that season will require a lot of psychological healing, Abbott said.

"It’s just about guys showing up on game day and wanting it," he said. "We’re down right now and now it’s about how bad is this defense going to fight? How much pride does this defense have? It’s going to be tough. And with all the stuff that’s circulating around the program, that’s going to make it even tougher, but I think we’ve got a bunch of resilient guys."