UCLA: Joe Tresey

'Not a normal situation' for UCLA coaches

December, 14, 2011
The fate of UCLA's coaching staff remains in limbo Wednesday, even after incoming coach Jim Mora met with each coach individually Tuesday after noon.

The holdovers from Rick Neuheisel's staff will remain on board to coach the team through the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31, but Mora, who attended practice Wednesday for about 15 minutes but did not speak with reporters, is expected to bring in his own assistants.

He has already hired Washington cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin and is close to adding Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, SMU offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, and Arizona State receivers coach Steve Broussard. Marques Tuiasosopo, recently named quarterbacks coach, is also expected to remain on as tight ends coach, but that leaves little room for the other current coaches.

"I talked to him briefly but we didn’t talk about anything whether I was going to stay or if I was going to go," interim coach Mike Johnson said.

Johnson previously served as offensive coordinator and receivers coach, so bringing Mazzone and Broussard aboard could mean Johnson's chances are slim, however there is no indication what jobs those coaches will have at UCLA. Johnson could also remain as quarterbacks coach.

"I’ll just have to wait and see what happens," Johnson said. "I have to look at all my options and then I’ll go from there. I like UCLA. I like L.A. and if the right opportunity comes up, I’ll definitely look at it."

Jim Mastro has reportedly already agreed to take a job with Mike Leachat Washington State. Mastro was not at practice for the fourth consecutive day, but that is because of a personal matter and not the Washington State job. Mastro will be back for the bowl game.

Also, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey left practice midway through Wednesday's session. Johnson said Tresey had to attend to a family matter, but acknowledged the regime change is a trying time for the staff.

"It’s a situation that is not normal," Johnson said. "It’s not a normal situation. You have guys that have things they have to do to take care of themselves. It’s a situation where we’re coaching a football team and some guys don’t have jobs after the 31st of December."

Johnson is reportedly a candidate for the open head coaching job at Akron, though he said he hadn't heard anything further on that front. For now, he said, he's focused on getting the team ready for the bowl game.

"All I worry about is what I do day to day," Johnson said. "That’s how I’ve always lived my life. I’m very confident in my abilities. I know I’m capable of doing a high job if given the opportunity. If someone wants to go on a different direction, that’s their right. I’ll find a job somewhere if it comes to that. But at the same time, Jim Mora has a job to do and I can respect that. If I’m part of that, then I’m part of that. If not then I can deal with that also."

Post-Neuheisel, pre-Mora era begins

December, 11, 2011
In two weeks, the Bruins went from team coached by a guy who had been fired to a team not coached by the guy who has been hired.

It's how the bizarre world of UCLA football has turned in recent weeks, but one thing we know for sure is that Sunday marked another phase in the strange season as the Bruins practiced for the first time in the post-Rick Neuheisel era.

Neuheisel was fired Nov. 28, but stayed on and coached the team through the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 3. The Bruins took last week off and returned with Mike Johnson, the team's offensive coordinator, as interim coach even though the school hired Jim L. Mora as a permanent replacement Saturday.

Mora is expected to arrive on campus Monday, but it's unclear exactly when he will assume coaching duties, so Johnson is in charge until he does.

"It’s a unique situation," quarterback Kevin Prince said. "These past two or three weeks have been really weird so you kind of just go with a flow and just do what you’re told."

Practice under Johnson had a slightly different look and feel. The team began practice with special teams work, which under Neuheisel had come at the end of practice. The tempo was also much quicker.

Also, run game coordinator Jim Mastro was not present. Mastro is under consideration for a position on the staff at Washington State and was thought to be meeting with new Cougars coach Mike Leach this weekend. Mastro is expected to be back with the Bruins this week and remain at UCLA through the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31.

The fate of the rest of the coaching staff remains to be determined. Mora said he would meet with the staff when he arrives and discuss the possibilities with each coach individually. Defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said the coaches are simply doing the best they can while they await word on their futures.

"I think we were all in agreement that we want to work with these guys, get them better, keep them focused and help them improve so when the new staff comes in we’ve done everything in our power to make sure they are ready," Tresey said. "We're all aware that it's difficult to keep your job when a new guy comes in especially if you don't have a relationship with him."

In the meantime, the Bruins set about their business by using a training-camp approach to their first bowl game practice session.

"We’re going back to the basics, especially the first week," Johnson said. "We’re going back to the fundamentals and the technique of what we do and we want to make sure we do those things properly. Sometimes during the season you get away from those things."

The players didn't know what to expect coming to the field on Sunday. Most of them have had only Neuheisel as a head coach at UCLA, so the different order of drills and pace of practice caught them a bit off guard. And, of course, they missed some of Neuheisel's quirks.

"It’s obviously a little different and strange to not have coach Neuheisel out here saying 'It’s a great day to be alive and be a Bruin,' and stuff like that but it’s fine," quarterback Prince said. "We all like coach Johnson and respect the way that he wants to run practice so it was a nice little change up. You do it a certain way for so long, it’s nice to kind of change it up and do things a little differently."

Bruins make strides on third down defense

November, 1, 2011
Third down hasn't exactly been the charm for UCLA this season. It has, in fact, been quite the opposite as the Bruins have toiled as one of the worst third-down teams in the country for most of the season.

They stopped their fee fall toward the bottom of the national rankings however, with a stellar third-down performance against in a 31-14 victory over California on Saturday and will look to continue that trend this weekend when Arizona State visits the Rose Bowl.

"Third down has been a thorn for us all year and we really made an emphasis to get off the field," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "Whatever we had to do, we had to stop third downs and the kids really bought into in and now we have to do it two weeks in a row."

The Bruins' third down defense was nearly impeccable against California. The Golden Bears converted only two of 12 third down opportunities. One was a one-yard touchdown on third and goal and another was a 39-yard scramble by quarterback Zach Maynard on third and 10 when the pocket collapsed and Maynard took off.

Other than those two plays, Cal did not gain positive yards on any other third down play. Five went for incomplete passes, two were intercepted passes, two were sacks and one was a rush for zero yards. Cal's average gain on third down was 2.9 yards.

"It seemed like for the first six or seven weeks we couldn't get off the field at all," said linebacker Patrick Larimore. "[Against Cal] we worked hard at that and it paid off because we were able to get out of there and let our offense go to work."

Going into the California game, UCLA ranked No. 118 out of 120 teams in the nation in third down conversion defense. Six of their seven previous opponents this season had converted at least 50 percent of their third down opportunities, including three that converted 60 percent or better.

No team in the country had allowed opponents to convert more third downs than the 61 UCLA had allowed. Their third down defense was so bad that despite the two-for-12 showing against Cal, the Bruins moved up only one spot to No. 117 with a 52.07 stop rate for the season.

Still, it was major progress for a team that seemed to give up big plays on third down no matter the situation. Against Cal, however, the Bruins were equal opportunity enforcers on third down. Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt set the tone early by stuffing Cal running back Isi Sofele on a third and one to force a three-and-out on The Golden Bears' first drive.

The Bruins stopped third-and-one plays twice and also stopped a third and two. Three times, they held on plays of third and 10 or more. Two of the team's three sacks came on third down as did two of Tevin McDonald's three interceptions.

"That will be a major point of emphasis going forward," Tresey said. "We can't expect to be that good on third down every week, but we're sure going to make the effort to be. It's essential to our success the rest of the season."

Stopping third downs is obviously important for any team, but is especially so for UCLA. The Bruins want to run a ball-control offense and use clock management as a weapon. Against California, the Bruins won the time of possession battle by almost six minutes in large part because they forced three three-and-outs against the Golden Bears and continually forced Cal into third and long passing situations.

"By no means are we there yet," Larimore said. "But I can't tell you what a relief it was for us to get those stops. Now the next thing we have to do is back it up. We can't be satisfied just because we had one good game."

Change is good for the UCLA defense

October, 29, 2011
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.

UCLA defense still searching for answers

October, 27, 2011
UCLA FootballChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Bruins, so far this season, rank 106 out of 120 FBS teams in total defense.

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."

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Grades: Midseason report card

October, 17, 2011
Instability at the most important position has been the story of the season, with Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut shuffling between starting roles. As a result, neither has been able to find much of a groove. Both have played well at times and the passing numbers are up nearly 100 yards a game over this time last season, but the quarterback play must get more consistent if the Bruins are to remain in the Pac-12 title race.

Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman have been the standouts of the UCLA offense this season, with a combined four 100-yard games in the first half. Franklin, with 509 yards, is on pace for a second consecutive 1,000-yard season and Coleman's six touchdowns are already a career high. Jordon James has emerged as a valuable pass-catching threat as an F-back.

Nelson Rosario has made his share of highlight-reel plays, tight end Joe Fauria has become a valuable weapon in the passing game and Josh Smith has shown flashes of electric playmaking ability, but inconsistency has plagued this unit. The dropped passes are down from last season, but there are still too many, and it sometimes feels like the receivers aren't giving a 100 percent effort.

This unheralded bunch has played admirably through the first half, paving the way for a rushing attack that is 28th in the nation with 194 yards a game. The pass blocking, while suspect at times, has been better than anticipated as UCLA quarterbacks have been sacked only four times, the ninth fewest in the nation. Losing Sean Sheller to a broken arm was a setback, but getting Jeff Baca back at around the same time helped offset that loss.

This unit has been the biggest disappointment of the season. The Bruins are 115th in the nation in sacks and no player has more than one this season. They are 111th in tackles for a loss and no defensive lineman has more than 2.5. They played admirably going into the break with two sacks and eight tackles for a loss against Washington State, and will need more of those types of games if they are to contend for the conference title.

Another pretty disappointing unit that has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks. Tackling was a major issue early in the season and pass-coverage problems continues to hamper the UCLA linebackers. Patrick Larimore leads the team in tackles while Eric Kendricks is emerging as a future star and Jordan Zumwalt leads the team with 3.5 tackles of a loss.

Sheldon Price had established himself as a top-tier cover corner before he sprained his knee and Aaron Hester has been far more consistent this year and also a boon in run support. Andrew Abbott has proven himself a valuable contributor as injuries have hampered the unit the last three games. Those injuries have caused inconsistent play among the safeties. The Bruins have only two interceptions by defensive backs and are 95th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense.

Jeff Locke has been his usual solid self with a 43.77 punting average and the field goal kicking has had its moments, but the special teams are a disaster in other areas. The Bruins rank 102nd or lower in punt returns, kickoff returns, punt return defense and kickoff return defense. Some of UCLA's most memorable gaffes this season -- Oregon State's punt return for a touchdown and Taylor Embree's fumble against Stanford -- have come on special teams.

The offense is still a little run heavy and conservative at times, but offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and coach Rick Neuheisel have shown a willingness to take shots downfield when needed. Pistol guru Jim Mastro has added some new wrinkles to the run game to keep opponents off balance and UCLA's run game is still difficult to stop. Still, you'd like to see a bit more creativity in getting the ball into the hands of playmakers in the open field.

The UCLA defense is giving up 413 yards and 32 points a game and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey's puzzling unwillingness to adjust to short, quick passing routes is a major reason why. UCLA's opponents are completing 68.32 percent of their passes because of soft coverage schemes and UCLA is 118th in the nation in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert nearly 55 percent of the time.

Jones feeling pressure, finally creates some

October, 16, 2011
Datone Jones knows a thing or two about pressure: He's been feeling a lot of it lately because he hasn't been applying much of it.

Jones, UCLA's 6-foot-5, 275 pound defensive end, entered this season with high expectations after a dominant spring and fall camp, but was nearly non existent during the early part of the season as he tallied only five tackles through the first three games and then went the next two without a tackle.

[+] EnlargeDatone Jones
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIBruins defensive end Dotone Jones says it pays off going 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.
He began the to turn things around last week against Washington State when he had four tackles, including his first sack of the season, and played what was easily his best game this year.

"The first one is the hardest one to get," Jones said. "After I got the first one, I was hitting the quarterback pretty much all night. It just felt good. It felt like I scored a touchdown. It was a big relief to get that first one."

If UCLA is going to improve this season, it's going to need Jones and his fellow defensive linemen to build off the success they had against the Cougars. UCLA ranks 112th in the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss, averaging .83 sacks a game and 4.17 tackles for a loss per game--an indication that the defensive line is not getting penetration.

But against the Cougars, UCLA had season highs of eight tackles for a loss and two sacks. It was all a matter of an attitude change, Jones said.

"I think it was just a case of realizing who we were," Jones said. "It seemed like we had some preseason hype about doing big things but we were just playing as individuals. We sat down and had a few talks and the whole week of practice we were engaged and focused and we clicked as a unit and once we clicked as a unit, we had the quarterback moving his feet and throwing pad passes."

Jones' first sack came at an opportune time. Washington State had a second and goal at the UCLA three yard line when Jones got to Marshall Lobbestael. It was only a one-yard loss, but Lobbeestael missed a pas son the next play and the Cougars had to settle for a field goal.

But Jones had perhaps the biggest play of the night on a third and eight play in the fourth quarter. With UCLA trailing, 22-20, Jones pressured Lobbestael out of the pocket, dove at his feet and tripped him up just as he got to the line of scrimmage. Had Jones missed, it would have been an easy first down. Instead, Washington State against kicked a field goal for a 25-22 lead and the UCLA offense responded with the game-winning touchdown.

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Mike Stoops firing could impact the Bruins

October, 11, 2011
Coach Rick Neuheisel said it was a double whammy for him when he found out Arizona coach Mike Stoops had been fired.

First, he was upset that one something like that would happen to one of his coaching brethren, and second, he is concerned about how it might affect UCLA's game at Arizona on Oct. 20.

"It’s one of those things as a coach that you are saddened by because I know Mike and I admire Mike and I wish him well," Neuheisel said. "I also know that he gave a lot of his heart and soul to that university. That being said, I also know that team will respond in the way that they should, meaning that they will come out and play and play as hard as they can."

Whether they play with the same schemes or not is another question Neuheisel has to try and answer.

"Certainly there can be some tinkering," Neuheisel said. "If there were things that coaches wanted to do but were not allowed to because of Mike’s wishes, those are no longer there and that can now happen and they have extra time to get that accomplished. I don’t know how to prepare for that other than get prepared to play and make adjustments as they occur during the course of the game."

Defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said he doesn't expect to see too much change, but is wary of a Wildcats team responding to the sudden adversity with an influx of energy.

"I’m sure there are a lot of kids that really like the guy and they are going to play for him and you have that whole dynamic," Tresey said. "You have every reason in the world to think that everyone is going to play at a higher level. So our kids are aware of that. We talked to them today about it and we’ll talk to them later about it."

That means the challenge for the UCLA coaches over the next week and a half will be to make sure UCLA has similar levels of energy and intensity at kickoff next Thursday.

"Whenever there is a change, whatever the reasons why, there is always kind of a fresh start and so they’ll feel that this is a fresh start," Neuheisel said. "From that standpoint, you just know that they are going to have a lot of energy when they step on to the field and we’ve got to match that."

Redemption song for Prince, UCLA defense

October, 9, 2011
Kevin PrinceGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireKevin Prince bounced back from his disastrous effort vs. Texas to lead the Bruins over Washington State.

PASADENA -- Two of UCLA's most beleaguered entities saved UCLA's season on Saturday night.

Quarterback Kevin Prince, so maligned that the Rose Bowl crowd booed him as he came on the field to relieve injured Richard Brehaut against Washington State, threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns and completed a crucial 58-yarder to set up the game-winner as the Bruins defeated the Cougars, 28-25, to keep UCLA afloat for now.

And the UCLA defense, the scapegoat for the Bruins' lackluster start this season because of its inability to stop opponents to anyone's satisfaction came up with a couple of key stops, including Andrew Abbott's interception that sealed the victory when a loss would have sent the season spiraling down the drain.

"It's huge," Abbott said. "We've been a little down and out, but this is the kind of thing that could springboard our whole season and it could springboard our whole program. We're not there yet. We still have some work to do and we need to learn from this and keep getting better."

Still UCLA's defense had been looking for a sign that things were turning, and the Bruins may have gotten just that Saturday night. They got eight tackles for a loss after getting just 17 in the first five games this season and had two sacks after getting only three in the first five games.

And Abbott's interception with 2:01 left came on a third and five. UCLA has had trouble all season on third down, entering the game No. 119 out of 120 in third-down conversion defense. The Bruins allowed Washington State to convert 11 of 20, but got the stop when it counted most.

"We were still having trouble on third down, but we kept fighting and we hung in there and got a turnover when we needed to," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "That was big. We got off twice in a row on third down when we needed to so that’s a plus to do that at the end of the game. I think that shows something about how our guys aren't giving up on getting this fixed."

For Prince, it was all about getting his confidence fixed. He was booed off the field last time he played a game after throwing three first-quarter interceptions against Texas. He threw another interception at the end of the first half Saturday but rebounded by completing four of four passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

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Luck is primary concern for secondary

September, 29, 2011
The challenge that faces the UCLA secondary this week is enormous: The Bruins must stop the best quarterback in the country.

Many before have tried, few have succeeded.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the Heisman runner up last season and projected first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, is 23-5 in his career as a starter and guided the Cardinal to the No. 9 scoring offense in the nation last season and again to the No. 9 scoring offense this season.

Andrew Luck
Christian Petersen/Getty Images Stanford QB Andrew Luck possesses the arm, the legs and the matter between the ears.
There is no easy way to stop Luck because when he isn't beating you with his arm--he has 6,699 yards passing and 53 touchdowns in 28 career games--he can beat you with his legs. He has rushed for 854 yards in his career, averaging 6.9 yards per carry.

But his most dangerous weapon is his brain. He can decipher a defense in seconds at the line, check out of a play and get the defense on its heels. It adds up to a challenge that will require the best of what UCLA's secondary has to offer.

"Flat out if you look at the film, he is the best quarterback in the country by far," cornerback Aaron Hester said. "We just have to be on our a-game in the secondary to make sure that we make plays."

Last year, UCLA did a pretty good job of containing Luck as a passer. He completed 11 of 24 passes for 151 yards--his lowest passing output of the season. Yet Luck was efficient, completing two of those passes for touchdowns and completing third down passes for 19, 34 and 22 yards.

But he really hurt UCLA by scrambling. He had runs of 16, 11, 13 and 11 yards among his 63 yards rushing in that game.

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Tevin McDonald gets his chance to shine

September, 29, 2011
Safety Tevin McDonald is only a redshirt freshman, but he's been around football long enough to know a thing or two about the game.

His father, Tim, played for the Cardinals and 49ers in the NFL and was also the high school coach at Edison High in Fresno, where Tevin and older brother, T.J., a standout safety at USC, played.

Still, he got a bit wide-eyed when he stepped on the field last Saturday at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore., for UCLA's game against Oregon State. McDonald was making his first career start.

[+] EnlargeTevin McDonald
Adam Davis/Icon SMITevin McDonald is the son of longtime NFL safety Tim McDonald.
"It was exciting," McDonald said. "I found myself just trying to soak it all in, looking up at the crowd and soaking it all in. This has been my dream so I felt like I was really living it out."

It didn't take long for him to get his feet wet. Oregon State sniffed out the rookie and threw a pass his way on the first play. It fell incomplete. On the next play, the Beavers ran to his side of the field and McDonald got involved in the play. And on the fifth play, McDonald got a tackle.

"They went after me the first two plays so I got my first contact and I was into the game," he said. "It didn't feel too big. I felt like I knew what I was doing out there and I just went back to what I've been doing on the practice field."

McDonald (6-0, 195) got the start in place of injured Tony Dye, a team captain who led the team in tackles last season. McDonald finished the game with a respectable five tackles and figures to get on the field more often, even when Dye returns.

"He’s up to it," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "He grew up in a football family and so he’s been around it his whole life. That helps tremendously. It’s kind of like a coaches kind, a players’ kid. You’ve been in the environment your whole life so you understand the culture. That makes things a lot easier when you have been in the culture."

McDonald shined all last season as a scout team player and continued to impress during spring practice. He's been working at free safety and nickel back because of his good coverage ability as well as his sure tackling. Dye sat out last week with shoulder stinger issues and has been limited in practice this week, but expects to return Saturday against Stanford. If he can't, he knows his position is in good hands.

"Tevin looks great right now," Dye said "I’m probably going to have to fight for my job when I get back."

Bruins win must-win game; Now what?

September, 24, 2011
CORVALLIS, Ore.--It might have been the victory that UCLA needed to save the ship from sinking, or it might have been just another Pac-12 road win against a team that will end the season with double-digits in losses.

UCLA defeated Oregon State, 27-19, Saturday at Reser Stadium, in a victory that the Bruins had to have if they were to hold out any hope of a decent season, but a victory that still left you wondering if a decent season is, in fact, within reach.

On one hand, the Bruins went into a hostile environment and made some crucial stands to win their conference opener for the first time since 2007. On the other hand, it was a close game against a team that three weeks ago lost to Sacramento State, a football championship subdivision team, on the same field.

The Bruins made great strides in areas such as making big plays on offense and coming up with crucial stops on defense, but the big plays were few and far between and the defense still bent a little too much.

UCLA showed great promise in racing to a 21-3 lead, but also demonstrated a lack of a killer instinct against a winless team, letting the Beavers to get to within 21-19 and needing to stop a two-point conversion in order to prevent Oregon State from erasing that 18-point deficit.

"It may not have been pretty to a casual observer, but to a guy who is watching these guys fight and learn how to win, especially on the road, it was a great turning the page moment," coach Rick Neuheisel said.

True, no matter how ugly, this had to be considered a step forward for the Bruins. Two weeks ago, they probably lose this game and in that sense the Bruins might very well have turned a corner. Learning how to withstand a challenge by a team as desperate for a win as UCLA is part of the growing process.

It could very well be that UCLA's defense, in stopping two fourth-down conversion attempts as well as the potential game-tying two-point conversion, grew up a little bit and began to discover some of the identity it's been lacking to this point in the season.

But the Bruins also let Oregon State convert a third and six, gave up a 31-yard pass on third 11 and gave up a 12-yard pass on third and 12. Oregon State converted eight of 16 third downs, but only four of 11 after the first quarter.

"We got a little soft at time in coverage and third downs weren't good early for us, but we kept fighting and grinding and got the stops when we needed to," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "We definitely made some strides today. Slowly but surely we are turning into the kind of defense we think we can be."

The Bruins gave up a season-low 88 yards rushing, including only 10 in the first half, which should build confidence. But the fact remains that Oregon State's top running back didn't play in the game because of an injury and the Beavers quarterback was making his first career start.

"We got better as the game went on," linebacker Patrick Larimore said. "That's huge for us and our momentum and our confidence. We can build on things like stopping them on fourth down."

On offense, it was also a mixed bag. The Bruins came out clearly trying to establish the run and ended up rushing for 211 yards--the third time in four games they have eclipsed the 200-yard mark. But after getting some early big plays in the passing game, including a 62-yard pass to Josh Smith and a 22-yard touchdown to Taylor Embree, quarterback Richard Brehaut began misfiring on deep balls and the Bruins had to revert back to the grinding run game.

"We had big-play opportunities where they kind of happened the way we wanted them to, but we didn’t capitalize," offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said.

And it's precisely those inabilities to capitalize that leave you wondering just exactly what this victory means. It seemed as if UCLA should have won this game in a rout, but Oregon State drove to the UCLA 22 with just over two minutes remaining before Sheldon Price knocked away a fourth-down pass to seal the victory.

We probably won't know exactly what this means for several weeks. UCLA has Stanford next week and nobody really expects the Bruins to upset the Cardinal, but we do know this: UCLA is 1-0 in conference and has a winning conference record for the first time at any point of any season since Neuheisel took over as coach.

It is only the third conference road win in Neuheisel's tenure. The other two were against Washington in 2008 (the Huskies finished that season 0-12) and against Washington State in 2009 (the Cougars finished 1-11 that season).

So it could be a watershed moment that gets the maligned Bruins and their head coach rolling in the right direction. Or, it could be just another road win against another bad conference team that seems headed for a dismal season.

Even Neuheisel was unsure of what the victory meant other than it was a victory and that is better than a loss.

"To go on the road and win, especially as the game’s fortunes changed and not give in to that, hopefully that’s something that as we look back will be a signature moment," Neuheisel said. "You can’t downplay how important it is to taste victory. If you keep pounding away and there is no recognizable result from it, it becomes hard. Hopefully we’ll capitalize.

"But we certainly can’t go back to a place where we think we’ve arrived. We’ve got a long way to go before we can call ourselves a good football team."

Third down is not the charm for UCLA

September, 20, 2011
On third down, UCLA has a long way to go.

And that goes for both the Bruins offense and defense.

The Bruins are currently No. 101 in the nation in third down conversions at 31.58 percent and No. 111 in the nation at preventing third down conversions, allowing opponents to convert 51.16 percent of the time. Top offenses convert 45 percent or more of third downs and the leading defenses generally keep opponents to 35 percent or less on third down conversions.

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsRick Neuheisel can't exactly put his finger on the Bruins' third down woes.
The are a multitude of things going wrong. On offense, penalties, missed blocking assignments, bad routes by receivers and poor passes from quarterbacks have all contributed in inefficient third down play. On defense, missed tackles, blown coverages, out of position players and penalties have cropped up on a regular basis.

It's a troubling trend that is as much to blame for UCLA's early season struggles as anything and is one that needs to be reversed if Bruins are going to salvage the season by having a strong showing in conference play. UCLA plays its Pac-12 opener Saturday at Oregon State.

"It's not any one thing, we've just got to be more consistent," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "Those are the things that have plagued us and so that'll have to get better and get better fast as we head into the meat of our schedule against a very, very difficult Pac-12 conference."

The problems on defense started early: On the first drive of the season, Houston went four-for-four on third downs, including converting a third and seven and a third and nine. On Houston's second drive, the Cougars converted a third and 11. Houston finished the game eight for 13 on third down conversions.

Against San Jose State, UCLA gave up 16 yards on a third and 10, 18 yards on a third and seven, 19 yards on a third and seven and--for good measure--gave up 11 yards on a fourth and 4. The Spartans, one of the handful of teams worse than UCLA in third down offense, managed to convert four of nine third downs in the first half of against the Bruins.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, along came Texas, which was nine of 11 on third-down conversions through three quarters. The Longhorns made the most of those conversions, too, gaining 193 total yards yards on third down plays alone, including a 45-yard touchdown on third and 10 and a 25-yard pass on third and 18.

(Read full post)

Bruins defense continues to disappoint

September, 18, 2011
It's time to forget everything you thought you knew about UCLA's defense.

Forget the two-deep talent among the front seven, the tons of experience and talent throughout the defense and the freakish athleticism expected to star on game day.

These guys are not who we thought they were.

Through three games so far this season, UCLA's defense ranks 108th in the nation in rushing defense (215 yards per game), 100th in total defense (424.67 yards per game), 103rd in scoring defense (34.67 points per game) and 111th in tackles for a loss (3.33 per game).

Those are nightmarish numbers for a unit that came into the season as the supposed strength of UCLA, with players such as defensive end Datone Jones, interior lineman Cassius Marsh, middle linebacker Patrick Larimore and safety Dietrich Riley poised for breakout seasons.

The Bruins' defense has had multiple problems with schemes, the inability to contain ball carries around the edges and blown pass coverages, but the biggest problem of all has been tackling. UCLA defenders are simply unable to finish off ball carriers even when they are in position to make plays. It's as if they are playing two-hand touch, giving up far more yards after contact than any major division college should.

What should be two-yard losses turn into six yard gains. What should be three-yard gains turn into first downs. And the most troubling part if it all is that nobody seems to know why the Bruins have gone so soft.

"We’ve got a new coach as the defensive coordinator and we’re trying to find our footing," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "I had hoped it would go better early, it obviously has not so we’re going to go back to work and find out exactly what is missing to keep us from being a stout run defense because we have got to play better that we have."

The inability to tackle can easily be traced to bad luck with injuries during Neuheisel's first three years as UCLA coach. He lost two quarterbacks during camp of his first season and lost Jones and center Kai Maiava in camp last season.

Understandably gun shy, Neuheisel limited the amount of live tackling in practice. The Bruins simply don't do it and they haven't, save for the scrimmages, since the beginning of training camp. Players are taught to fit the tackle, grab and let go.

It's worked as the Bruins are as injury free as they have been at this point in the season during Neuheisel's tenure, but it's also had a carry-over effect: the Bruins appear to be playing exactly how they practice.

"All we need to do is tackle," Marsh said. "Tackling is the key to success on defense and that’s just something we need to do. If we made every tackle that we attempted, if we make the first tackle, we would have won a lot of these games we’re losing. The coaches know that, the players know that and I hope this week we address that."

Joe Tresey, the defensive coordinator, acknowledged that tackling has been an issue, but also appears gun shy about live tackling drills. Asked if he would do more of it in practice this week, he balked, saying it would be too risky as the Bruins prepare to open Pac-12 play at Oregon State next week.

"It’s to the point now where you can’t just have a waylay and have full-out tackle drills and the whole deal and you end up going to Corvallis with four starters hurt," Tresey said.

The defensive issue may run deeper than just tackling. The team called a players-only meeting last week, a sign that there may be some chemistry or other internal issues. But Tresey said that wasn't a problem. He said his players have continued to fight even when things have gone awry. They gave up season highs of 284 yards rushing, 488 total yards and points in their 49-20 loss to Texas, yet never gave up on each other.

"It was ugly, but you know what? They kept fighting," Tresey said. "I saw it in their eyes, nobody was going in the tank. You’ve got to go with them. That’s all you’ve got. I believe in them. I really do. Come hell or high water, I’m convinced we are going to be a very good defense."

And Tresey knows that makes him sound like a mad man based on what we have seen out of the defense so far, but he insists that the defense we have seen so far is not who we think they are.

"Our back's against the wall and you know, we have faith in these guys," Tresey said. "And you know what, I may be the laughing stock of L.A., but you know what? I don’t care. These kids, they’re going to fight. They’re going to fight and we know it."

Five things to watch: Texas at UCLA

September, 16, 2011

Both teams enter the game with question marks at quarterback. Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut have been in a six-week competition for the starting job, yet neither has been able to claim it outright. Prince, who appears to be the choice to start against Texas, can't stay on the field because of injuries. Brehaut has shown flashes of excellence, but sprinkles in too much inconsistency. They may split time or alternate or one may play the whole game. Oh, and don't forget true freshman Brett Hundley. He's supposed to have a package of plays ready to run, but we haven't yet seen it in a game. Across the field, last year's starter Garrett Gilbert was replaced after a game and a half by the tandem of Case McCoy and David Ash. McCoy,the brother of former Texas quarterback Colt, is the more seasoned of the two, but Ash may be the more talented and is definitely the more athletic. He's only a true freshman, however, so don't expect him to have everything down just yet. They are slated to split time.


This game will be far different from last year's 34-12 UCLA victory because of coaching staff overhauls on both teams. The head coaches, Rick Neuheisel and Mack Brown are the same, but both teams have new offensive and defensive coordinators. That means you can throw last year's film out the window because both teams are running different schemes. UCLA's offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is adding a pro-style section to the Pistol playbook and seeking more balance. Texas co-offensive coordinators Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite are trying to add a power running attack. UCLA defensive coordinator Joe Tresey is looking for a fast, aggressive tempo while Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is looking to confuse and dictate the opposing offense. But with so much newness on both teams, they are both still trying to find their identities. That means the normal cat and mouse game between the coaches will be at a heightened level for this game as they try to read one another.


When these teams met last year, UCLA rushed for 264 yards--the most rushing yards by any team against Texas last season. UCLA's Pistol attack, a zone read-based offense, was so effective that the Bruins needed to pass only nine times for 27 yards and still won, 34-12. The Bruins still use the Pistol, though it is only a component of the offense this year, and will almost assuredly try to see if it can be effective again. The Bruins will want to control the clock with running backs Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman doing the bulk of the work. Quarterback Kevin Prince had 50 yards against Texas last year and is also an effective runner. Expect to see more of Malcolm Jones and Jordon James, too, especially if UCLA runs 56 times like they did last year. Texas is certainly studying what went wrong against UCLA's run game and it's defense, currently giving up only 86.5 yards rushing per game, will be out to shut down the UCLA backs.


UCLA's kicking game is a bit of a question mark as we head toward game day. Field goal kicker Kip Smith made two field goals last week against San Jose State, but sometime between Saturday and Tuesday he began feeling tightness in his kicking leg. He sat out almost all week of practice and with backup Joe Roberts also injured, coach Rick Neuheisel brought in soccer team manager Tyler Gonzalez to try out. All this after Smith had seemingly turned a corner after struggling through training camp. The oddsmakers have Texas as a 3.5-point favorite, so a field goal could very well play a major role in the game. Punter Jeff Locke would be the field goal kicker if Smith can't go and Gonzalez would probably be available as an emergency replacement. But Locke has been off a bit in his top skill. The Pac-10 leader with a punting average of 45.84 last season, his average is only 37.4 so far this season. Locke also handles kickoffs, but none of his six kickoffs went for touchbacks last week.


UCLA's defense has been a major disappointment thus far, giving up 469 total yards against Houston and 202 yards rushing against San Jose State, one of the worst rushing teams in the nation last season. They've had problems with missed tackles and letting quarterbacks scramble for big yards--especially on third downs. That combination could spell trouble against a Texas running attack that is averaging 197 yards a game this season. Both Texas quarterbacks are athletic enough to do damage with their legs and David Ash in particular is a legitimate running threat. Leading rusher Malcolm Brown is the right combination of size and speed to cause problems for a struggling run defense. The Bruins have vowed to play with more energy and passion this week and must keep containment in the pocket and also shore up some holes in the middle of the defensive line in order to prevent Texas from gaining control of the clock and the game.



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P. Perkins1345734.36
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D. Fuller4347111.04