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Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Updated: December 3, 11:17 AM ET
Bruins' defense has its hands full with USC

By Ted Miller
Special to ESPN.com

You know that old line about the irresistible force meeting the immovable object and what great fun that would be to watch because, you know, something cool and, like, subatomic would happen?

Well, get over it. That isn't the story when UCLA visits USC on Saturday.

Dorrell_Karl
Karl Dorrell's UCLA defense surrenders 435.4 yards per game.
The Trojans are bringing their irresistible force of an offense -- and the Bruins' force ain't too shabby, either -- but, apparently, immovable objects are about as scarce in L.A. as Paris Hilton's dignity.

And, oh, that UCLA defense. Immovable object? The Bruins' defense is a feather pillow.

The safety of a telephone line makes it easy to mention this to Bruins LB Spencer Havner, who surely sometimes feels as if he's a talented actor trapped in a Max Bialystock production of "Springtime for Hitler."

UCLA's four-year starter and two-time All-Pac-10 linebacker has accumulated 387 tackles and 42 tackles for loss in his career -- both totals ranking third on the school's all-time list -- often while dodging staggering bodies of defensive linemen flying around him like shrapnel.

So, what's it like being the star of a defense that surrenders more yards (435.4 per game) than any other ranked team? Has Havner, perhaps, heard the pundits poking fun at the Bruins' run defense, which ranks 115th in the country (219.5 yards per game)?

How's it feel to turn on "College GameDay" and hear the boys crack on you? "Yea, those guys are funny," Havner said through teeth that may have been grinding. "I think [Lee] Corso hates us. Those guys take their shots. It's tough to hear sometimes."

Havner knows there isn't much defense for his defense, though tailback Maurice Drew offers one: The Bruins are 9-1, so pfftt.

"They haven't been doing that good of a job stopping [teams], but they've been doing well enough for us to win games," Drew explained.

The conventional wisdom is that No. 11 UCLA's only hope against top-ranked and undefeated USC, owner of a 33-game winning streak, is for something strange to happen, such as a gaggle of miscues induced by rivalry-game mystique.

UCLA's offense is very good; it ranks fifth in the nation (40 points per game). But the Trojans are wicked-good. They lead the nation in total offense (571.3 yards per game) and are second in scoring (48.5 points per game). They've scored in 40 of 44 quarters this season. They've punted just 31 times, fewest in the nation.

Perhaps Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush will be distracted by their plans for an evening surrounded by velvet ropes at Marquee in Manhattan after one or the other wins the Heisman Trophy, but that seems unlikely with a Rose Bowl invitation and a chance for an unprecedented third consecutive national title hanging in the balance.

So how do you stop them?

You can't really game plan for [Reggie Bush]. You can't really game plan us.
USC QB Matt Leinart

"You're not going to stop them," UCLA coach Karl Dorrell said.

Of course, the Bruins were supposed to be patsies last year. They entered that rivalry contest having lost three of five in large part because -- surprise -- their defense was terrible.

USC, winner of six straight in the series, prevailed 29-24 when a desperation UCLA drive in the waning moments ended with a Drew Olson interception.

While Bush supplied dramatics with scoring prances of 81 and 65 yards, the Trojans' hero was since-departed kicker Ryan Killeen, who booted a school-record five field goals.

That means five times the Trojans, with essentially the same cast of future NFL All-Pros, couldn't bully over the goal line against the boys in pastel powder-blue.

The Bruins, in fact, sacked Leinart three times, forced an interception and held the budding Heisman Trophy winner without a touchdown pass for the first time in 25 starts.

"We gained from that experience," Dorrell said. "It gave us a feeling that we're not far off."

That said, two of those sacks came from defensive tackle Kevin Brown, who has missed the entire season with an ankle injury.

The Bruins' defense might be small -- average weight of the front four: 266 pounds -- but it's also young, starting six freshmen or sophomores with seven others on the two-deep depth chart.

Despite youth and injuries, they've had their moments.

Unlike Texas, UCLA whipped Oklahoma when tailback Adrian Peterson was healthy, holding the sophomore to 58 yards rushing on 23 carries in a 41-24 victory.

The D also tends to cowboy-up in the fourth quarter. Opponents average 6.7 yards per play in the first half but just 4.1 in the fourth. UCLA has outscored opponents 129-41 in the fourth quarter, while engineering four comebacks from double-digit deficits in the final frame.

USC coach Pete Carroll, while noting the Bruins have altered their scheme to account for personnel deficiencies, insisted that a significant element of their struggles is playing in the Pac-10, where seven offenses average over 418 yards per game.

"No question that's a factor," Carroll said. "They've won nine games. [The defensive statistics are] a statement about who they have to play each week."

UCLA's general plan will be fairly simple: Make the Trojans work for their points; don't give up big plays; try to create turnovers.

With three weeks to prepare, however, the Bruins figure to have a whole bunch of special schemes intended to thwart Bush, Leinart and Co. The question is whether the irresistible force will even notice.

"You can't really game plan for [Bush]," Leinart said. "You can't really game plan us."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.