NCF Nation: Pasadena 081

How about that Pac-10 defense?

September, 2, 2008

Posted by's Ted Miller

 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 UCLA's tenacious defense kept the Bruins in the game, despite a weak performance from the offense in the first half.

PASADENA, Calif. -- The final score sheet said Tennessee piled up 366 yards, but that doesn't tell the story of a UCLA defense that was the cornerstone of the Bruins' 27-24 overtime victory.

Despite four first-half interceptions tossed by Bruins quarterback Kevin Craft, including one returned for a touchdown, UCLA only trailed 14-7 at the break.

Defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker also was working with marching orders to play conservatively and not take high-risk, high-reward chances because the offense, it was thought, wouldn't be able to make up the difference.

"DeWayne's defense kept us in the game," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "We came into the game with an idea of how to manage field position. I told him to be a little more conservative on their end of the field and if they get to the 50, now use your tricks."

The defense produced two takeaways, including one on a critical Arian Foster fumble on the Bruins' 6-yard line.

It only had one sack, but it consistently pressured and rattled Vols QB Jonathan Crompton, who completed only 18 of 40 passes for 184 yards with an interception. At one point in the fourth quarter, Crompton had missed on nine of 10 passes.

Up front, the Bruins more than handled what was reputed to be the SEC's best offensive line.

"They think the Pac-10 is soft," senior tackle Brigham Harwell said. "We let the people talk and talk and talk. But talk is cheap. We had to prove it."

The Bruins produced eight tackles for a loss. Cornerback Alterraun Verner, who Walker reserved special praise for, had six tackles to go with his interception. End Korey Bosworth had the lone sack.

Walker wasn't happy about giving up 177 yards rushing, but he was happy about how the group held together while repeatedly finding itself in binds created by the offense.

"What I like about these guys is how they all care about each other -- they care about the offensive guys, not only the defensive guys," Walker said. "They know our job is to keep them out of the end zone regardless of how many times we have to go out on the field."

And that end result made it all worthwhile.

"Besides the USC win my junior year, this is the biggest win of my career and for our program," Harwell said.

Neuheisel savors his return

September, 2, 2008

Posted by's Ted Miller

 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 Rick Neuheisel pulled off a stunning upset in his return to college football.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Here's a guess that glib, garrulous, open to a fault Rick Neuheisel will tuck away a special nugget of satisfaction from UCLA's stunning 27-24 overtime victory over No. 18 Tennessee, placing it within himself where the public won't get to see and therefore pick over it like the rest of his coaching career.

Neuheisel knows where he stands with his myriad critics. And that clearly makes leading a seemingly overmatched team to a stunning upset win in his first college game since 2002 all the sweeter.

"It was a thrill -- thrill -- to be back on the sidelines," he said.

He was a golden boy at Colorado, then a hot shot at Washington. A lot of folks believed he was a climber, desperate to grab another, more prestigious rung on the coaching ladder. A lot of folks believed he was willing to take short cuts to get there.

He left behind bitterness in both places. His tumultuous ending at Washington had some speculating that he might not get another opportunity at a major program.

"A lot of people had to stick their necks out to get me this chance," he said. "It could have been an easier path maybe to go in another direction than to take the slings and arrows that go with hiring somebody who's got some blemishes."

What some folks forgot -- or even tried to deny -- is that Neuheisel can coach. He's now 67-30 overall and 17 of those wins came via fourth-quarter comebacks.

Make that 18.

It's not just about X's and O's. It's about getting players to believe, which probably was quite a struggle before the Bruins took the field at the Rose Bowl. Just about everyone in the media -- locally and nationally -- had spent the past few weeks writing them off, particularly a patchwork offensive line and a new starting quarterback, Kevin Craft, who was only running the show because the two seniors in front of him are injured.

To get them to believe in themselves, Neuheisel decided that he needed them first to believe in him.

So he showed them film of his special wins, such as Colorado's 1994 victory over Michigan on a stunning 64-yard touchdown bomb as time expired, when he paced the sidelines moments before hopelessness became magic, telling his players they were going to win.

There was the upset of Miami in 2000 that propelled Washington into the national title hunt and a final No. 3 ranking.

And what about his stellar performance in the 1984 Rose Bowl victory over Illinois as UCLA's quarterback?

He wanted them to know that there were rewards for buying in to his oft-repeated mantra of relentless optimism.

"The one thing I did tell them is that I am lucky," Neuheisel said of his pregame plan. "That I've got a horseshoe tucked somewhere -- that something good is going to happen so you believe it."

That's how a team with a quarterback who throws four (four!) first-half interceptions still wins -- with that same mess of a quarterback leading two long, high-pressure scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

That's how a team doesn't split apart when its strong defense is repeatedly put in bad positions by its floundering offense.

"The unity of the defense believing in [offensive coordinator Norm Chow] and his offense -- instead of it being just us and them -- I really believe that was tested tonight and it will serve us well down the road," Neuheisel said.

Coaches always say "players make plays," but you would be hard-pressed to find a game in which coaching so clearly mattered. And it wasn't that Tennessee was coached so poorly that it was taken advantage of -- it was that UCLA was coached so well that it simply couldn't be outflanked, even by superior personnel.

So call this a debut that even surpassed its hype of the superstar triumvirate of Neuheisel, Chow and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker.

"Tonight you saw evidence that this is a really fabulous coaching staff," Neuheisel said.

Neuheisel began his postgame session with reporters with, as is his wont, a self-deprecating joke about his hair not doing so well having been showered in Coke.

He talked about being "unbelievably grateful" that he could be so bathed.

But when a reporter asked him about his journey to this point from his dark days in coaching purgatory, he pulled back just a bit and repeated a few phrases he's leaned on while fielding similar questions repeatedly since UCLA decided to take a chance on him.

This was a great win, but one win. He still hasn't approached the football monopoly across town.

He's ready to move on.

"It was a hard five years being away from college football," he concluded.

There, of course, was more. But that part was only for family and friends -- beaming to a person -- whom he embraced outside the locker room door, away from prying eyes.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- Kai Forbath's 42-yard field goal was the winner.

One word: Wow.

Two more (and a letter): What a game.

Got to go.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- This was a tale of two quarterbacks.

Kevin Craft in the first half and Kevin Craft in the second half.

The first Craft tried to give this one away to No. 18 Tennessee with four first-half interceptions. He then, instead of going into the tank, tried to win it in the second half.

And by golly he almost did it.

Tennessee, left for dead, forced OT with a 47-yard field goal from Daniel Lincoln with no time left, tying the score at 24-24.

Still, Craft's transformation was simply stunning.

Craft in the first half: 7-of-18 for 66 yards with 4 INTs. No TD drives.

Craft in the second half: 18-of-25 for 193 yards, no picks and a TD pass with 27 seconds to backup TE Ryan Moya. And 80- and 70-yard TD drives.

Truth is, Craft wasn't UCLA's MVP. The Bruins defense was.

It kept the Vols in check and rattled their QB, Jonathan Crompton, who missed on nine of 10 passes at one point in the second half before his own clutch recovery, rallying the Vols for the tying field goal.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- From the Rose Bowl press box ...

Is the UCLA defense wearing down as Tennessee asserts itself?

UCLA went three-and-out, and the Vols promptly drove 73 yards to the Bruins' 6-yard line.

But then Tennessee's Arian Foster fumbled, and the Bruins recovered.

Boy, this Bruins defense. Coordinator DeWayne Walker has these guys schemed-up and ready to play.

Perhaps as a belated reward, the Bruins offense earned two first downs, moving out to their 40. That gave them seven for the game.

Then, after another good defensive series, what's this ... a UCLA drive!

Give Kevin Craft credit for being mentally tough. A lot of guys would have gone into the emotional tank after tossing four interceptions in the first half.

He goes 3-for-4 for 31 yards on a 10-play drive that's capped by a 41-yard field goal by Kai Forbath, closing the gap to 14-10.

The line surrendered its first sack, which means the maligned crew has done fairly well in pass protection through almost three quarters.

Is this really a game? Seems like it's going to take a Tennessee mistake for the Bruins to pull off an upset, but this is much closer than most folks expected, including yours truly.

The Bruins are pinned deep -- second and 14 on their 4-yard line to start the fourth -- not good.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- From the Rose Bowl press box ...

Craft starts the second half.

TB Kahlil Bell will try to play with a sprained ankle.

TE Logan Paulsen (fractured foot) and WR Marcus Everett (toe) are out.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's a reason Kevin Craft remained the UCLA quarterback after tossing a couple of early interceptions.

His coaches believe he gives the Bruins the best chance to win.

But after he threw his fourth of the first half, which was returned 61 yards for a TD in the waning moments before the break -- giving Tennessee a 14-7 advantage -- it's hard to say that could still be true.

Changing QBs is not only about giving redshirt freshman Chris Forcier a shot. It's about not allowing Craft to completely destroy his confidence.

At this pace, Craft will set a school record for interceptions. He had seven completions and four interceptions in the first half.

The Bruins' offense managed just 85 total yards. There's no way the Bruins D can hold up its impressive pace.

We shall see who starts the third.

As a side note, whoever does apparently will be without three key offensive starters: TB Kahlil Bell (ankle), TE Logan Paulsen (foot) and WR Marcus Everett (toe)

Posted by's Ted Miller 

PASADENA, Calif. -- From the Rose Bowl press box:

The second quarter started off with the Tennessee offensive line looking rattled with consecutive false starts -- they'd jumped three times before two minutes passed in the second quarter.

However, big plays cure things quickly. Crompton found Josh Briscoe for 41 yards to advance to the Bruins 11. Montario Hardesty ran off-tackle on the next play for the tying score.

That seemed like a potential confidence-builder for Crompton that would swing the game's momentum but Crompton then made his first big mistake by tossing an interceptions to a diving Alterraun Verner on the Vols 41.

The Bruins went three-and-out but pinned the Vols on their 7, and they gained only one yard and had to punt from their own endzone.

Let's pause for a moment and recognize that UCLA's DTs, Brigham Harwell and Brian Price, are playing as advertised. Harwell just busted up that third-down screen and he and Price are owning the middle of the line.

But they are going to need the offense to possess the ball, or they are going to wear down.

Second consecutive possession starting in Vols territory and a third interception, this time by FS Eric Berry. It was another ill-advised pass frm Craft that had no chance.

The defense bailed the offense out, despite giving up a a couple of big plays that allowed the Vols to drive to the Bruins 34.

The Bruins are doing a good job of getting consistent pressure on Crompton, though they haven't recorded a sack.

Surprisingly, though, neither did the Vols in the first half.

But sometime the defense can't help, such as when Craft's fourth interception is returned 61 yards for a TD by Nevin McKenzie.

It is 14-7 at the break and UCLA needs to decide if maybe it could do better with Chris Forcier instead of Craft.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- From the Rose Bowl press box:

Tennessee is 14-2 in season-openers under coach Philip Fulmer, but one of those losses was here against UCLA in 1994, 25-23.

The last time the teams played, in 1997, Tennessee won, 30-24. After that defeat, the Bruins would win 20 in a row.

Things couldn't have started better for UCLA, including a crowd that looked larger than expected.

First, UCLA forced a three-and-out from Tennessee. Then QB Kevin Craft completed consecutive passes for 17, 18 and 12 yards, and the Bruins had a first down on the Vols 25.

What we meant to say: UCLA's dominant passing attack!

Er, then Craft was intercepted on third and 9 by DeAngelo Willingham on a pass that wasn't terribly close to a Bruin, so it probably was a miscommunication.

Craft's next interception -- on the second play of the next possession -- was a floater that Vols free safety Demetrice Morely just drifted over to the near sideline to grab.

Still, the Bruins defense held with another three-and-out.

There is no way this pace favors UCLA. Already it's losing the field position battle, and Craft's confidence level can't be high with the two picks.

Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton isn't ripping things up. He's 5-for-12 for 50 yards, but he has not gifted the Bruins anything and he even recovered his own fumble snap.

So, good defenses and struggling offenses are a push.

But what about special teams?

Advantage: UCLA.

First, Tennessee missed a 51-yard field goal. The Vols also had a holding penalty on a nice kickoff return.

But the big play: UCLA blocked a Vols punt and returned it for a TD, the only points of the quarter. The punt was blocked by Akeem Ayers and returned 17 yards by Sean Westgate for the score.

Tennessee was breaking in a new punter, Chad Cunningham, because its All-SEC starter, Britton Colquitt, was suspended.

Posted by's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- In 2000, a Miami team laden with future NFL starts visited Washington. My take in advance of the game? The Huskies had no chance.

Washington won 34-29, and the score is no way indicative of how in control the Huskies were throughout.

I was stunned.

After the game, a handful Washington players talked about Rick Neuheisel's pregame speech, how he went around the tense locker room -- full of players who'd been told all week that they were going to lose -- and told each individual exactly how he was going to help the Huskies win.

It remains the only time players have volunteered to me how inspiring a pregame speech was.

Of course, that Huskies team turned out to be pretty good, finishing third in the country after winning the Rose Bowl.

This UCLA team that Neuheisel will lead out of the Rose Bowl locker room is not nearly as good as that Huskies team, but I doubt Tennessee is as good as that Miami team, either.

Point is that Bruins players have heard and read they're not very good for a month, but it remains possible that Neuheisel can convince them otherwise before the game.

If the Bruins play with confidence and a chip on their shoulder, they've got a shot at the upset.

College football has showcased a few of those of late, and a UCLA victory wouldn't make most folks' list of utter shockers.

The first key for the Bruins is not making stupid mistakes on offense. There's no way they win the game if they don't win the turnover battle.

That means reversing last season when UCLA ranked last in the Pac-10 in turnover margin (-4).

With the offense playing things close to the vest, the defense will need to make aggressive plays. It will need to rattle new starting Vols QB Jonathan Crompton.

That's way easier said than done. The Tennessee offensive line probably is one of the best units in the country, welcoming back four starters from a group that yielded just four sacks a year ago. An NCAA-record four sacks, that is.

It's hard to rattle a QB, no matter how inexperienced, when he's standing comfortably in the pocket with nary a power blue jersey around him.

UCLA ranked third in the Pac-10 a year ago with 39 sacks, but Bruce Davis took 12 of those away to the NFL.

The crowd doesn't figure to be much of a factor. Only 65,000 are expected, and even the normally obsessive Tennessee fans -- an easy to distinguish orange contingent already filling up their stadium pie slice -- is expected to number a manageable 7,000.

A few just tried to get an "SEC! SEC!" chant going. It died quickly.

With about 45 minutes until kickoff the atmosphere hasn't hit yet electric, but the San Gabriel Mountains sure look pretty in the background.

Bruins fans are hoping that won't be the only good view tonight.