Saturday, October 29, 2011
Change is good for the UCLA defense
By Peter Yoon
Defensive players and coaches like to talk about sudden change.
It's when the defense makes a stop, get off the field and then have to go right back out because of a turnover or a penalty.
UCLA displayed a different kind of sudden change Saturday during a 31-14 victory over California.
The Bruins defense, maligned and beleaguered most of this season and especially after dismal performance last week at Arizona, came up with its best game of the season and it pretty much came out of nowhere.
The Bruins, who had forced only nine turnovers through the first seven games, got five against the Golden Bears. UCLA, who had given up more third down conversions than any team in the country, gave up only two against Cal.
After giving up a season-high 573 yards against Arizona, the Bruins gave up only 333--the second fewest against UCLA this season--and gave up a season-low 14 points.
Sudden change, indeed.
"The Arizona game was incredibly embarrassing across the program," linebacker Patrick Larimore said. "A lot of guys were down. I was down, but you have to come back every week and that's what we did."
It was especially important given the offensive game plan. UCLA was down four receivers because of suspensions handed down by the Pac-12 conference after last week's brawl at Arizona. So the plan was to run, run, run and control the clock.
In order for it to work, UCLA's defense had to cooperate by keeping California from getting points. A season low will certainly do, but considering both of California's touchdowns came after turnovers deep in UCLA territory, California was lucky to score at all.
"This wasn't the same team from last week," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "I think last week was a gut check and they responded to the gut check. It came down to guys looking in the mirror and saying 'Where is our confidence? Why can’t we do this? We’ve got good players in this room. We’ve got to start believing. We’ve got to have energy.' And we did that tonight."
California, averaging 293 yards passing coming in to the game, had only 199 thanks in large part to three interceptions by safety Tevin McDonald. The Bruins had five interceptions as a team coming into the game and nearly doubled that total with four on Saturday.
"For us to come out and put out that kind of effort out showed the world 'Don’t believe what you saw last week,'" McDonald said.
What we saw this week was a different defense--literally. Tresey made major changes by shifting players around and introducing some new schemes.
Defensive end Datone Jones shifted inside to tackle and redshirt freshman Aramide Olaniyan got his first significant action outside of special teams. Keenan Graham got a lot more playing time at defensive end and linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt and safety Stan McKay were on the field for more snaps than in past games.
The moves paid off. Jones and McKay shared the team lead with six tackles. Kendricks was next with five. Graham had a sack and Jones had two. Olaniyan made a tackle for a four-yard loss.
The Bruins also introduced a quarter package with six defensive backs on the field at the same time and three down linemen.
"We knew we needed to change some things up, but mostly we needed to change our attitude," said Jones, who shared the team lead with six tackles and led the team with two sacks. "We needed to play with our heads on fire, everyone. We fed off each other. We were like piranhas. One guy gets the first bite and then 10 others swarm."
And all it took was hitting rock bottom last week, when Arizona bolted to a 42-7 lead by halftime and scored touchdowns on all six first half possessions.
"I don’t know if you can go any lower than the Arizona game," Larimore said. "So yeah, we responded tonight. Now we can't lose this. We have to come out and play with the same kind of intensity next week."
Jones said he believes the defense finally found itself. For most of the season it's been a disappointing unit across the board. The Bruins were 106th in the nation in total defense before this game, a far cry from the team that entered this season looking like it would be a strength.
The Bruins had given up 49, 45 and 48 points in UCLA's last three losses, but they banded together Saturday when the team needed them most.
"A lot of guys are fed up with it," Jones said. "It's been embarrassing. It's tough to deal with that. We just promised each other to step up. The playmakers had to make plays."
The key now will be to keep the momentum going. The Bruins have followed each victory this season with a loss the next week. They gave up 17 points against San Jose State, then 49 against Texas. They gave up 19 against Oregon State, then 45 at Stanford. They gave up 25 against Washington State and 48 against Arizona.
"What a roller coaster," Tresey said. "But I think the whole theme this week has to be 'OK, we’ve done this, now we’ve got to keep playing like this at this level. The guys locked arms and got it done tonight, but can we back it up by doing it again. That would be nice for a change."
A sudden change, at that.