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Bruins Try to Wring Out Old

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last game of this season also stands as the first game of next season for the UCLA defense, in desperate need of a strong showing Friday against Wisconsin to ease the Miami memories and to offer an emotional boost heading toward next fall.

That might be the situation under any circumstances, but these Bruins are a special case because they are so young.

Of the 22 players on the preferred two-deep defensive roster for the Rose Bowl--meaning injured linemen Micah Webb and Pete Holland are included--18 are expected back in the fall.

Only two starters, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and safety Larry Atkins, and two reserves, defensive backs DuVal Hicks and Tod McBride, are seniors.

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That makes this a chance for the Bruins not only to redeem themselves for the terrible showing Dec. 5 at Miami, but to set the tone for 1999.

“This is kind of where it starts for next year,” said Atkins, a captain. “It’s on the first, so it starts off that year, and it’s kind of an ending [to the current season] and also a preview to what’s going to happen next year. It’s important that the defense plays well this game, especially since we have so many guys on the team. They’re all going to be back, except for me and Brendon.”

Even those Bruins who say they have put the Miami game behind them acknowledge that public perception is something else.

The Hurricanes, consistently breaking tackles, scored 49 points and piled up 689 yards.

That it was the catalyst of the biggest disappointment of all--the Bruins losing the chance at a national championship--only compounded the scrutiny.

Because that was the final game of the regular season and was followed by the lengthy break before the Rose Bowl, it is the image that has remained.

Simply, UCLA has not yet had the chance to erase it.

The Bruins get it now, with the opportunity to go the next nine months with a good memory.

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“It would be huge,” defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “I would like nothing more [than] for us to win the football game with a great defensive effort. I’ll take the win any way we can, and most of them this year have been through our offense playing just outstanding. . . . But it would go a long way for us to play good defense. It’d go a long way.

“I think it’s real important that we play well so that we can feel good about ourselves. But I don’t think it’s the end-all to how we’re going to be next fall. We’re going to get bigger, stronger, faster, learn the defense better, have more time to be with them. I think we can improve quite a bit from now until the time when we line up next fall.”

Added sophomore linebacker Tony White: “I think if we have a bad game, it’ll just be like a snowball effect--we had a bad game against Miami, we had a bad game against Wisconsin. We’d go into the off-season wondering what we’re going to have to do to turn it around, turn the defensive program around.

“But I think if we have a good game, it kind of closes the door with the ghosts in the closet. Young guys growing up, playing in such a great bowl game--I think it finally says that we did do some things good this year. [We would have] 11 wins for the first time in school history and it really gives us a head start for next season.

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“This defense, besides one or two guys, has never played in such a big game like the Rose Bowl. Playing a quality team like Wisconsin with such a young defense growing up, it’s like a last stage of us coming together before the year’s over and setting our goals for next year. Really, building the next season starts with this game.”

Indeed, the much-maligned defense did do some good things this season.

It won the Oct. 24 game at Berkeley, giving up two touchdowns, and on drives of two (after a California fumble recovery) and 52 yards at that. The Bears got their other two points on a safety.

It responded to Coach Bob Toledo’s public criticism of his defensive assistants, surrendering only two pertinent touchdowns to Washington, before the Huskies got another meaningless score against the reserves with 45 seconds remaining, and then only two more touchdowns the next week against USC.

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It had a memorable stand against high-powered Oregon on what became the Ducks’ lone overtime possession, when Ayanbadejo twice sacked quarterback Akili Smith and cornerback Ryan Roques intercepted a Smith pass two plays later.

It dealt with extended injuries to the best defensive lineman, Kenyon Coleman, and to a pair of projected starters at linebacker, Michael Wiley and Ramogi Huma.

Nobody was about to confuse this unit as a Bruin strength and everyone recognized this was a young group with a new defensive coordinator.

But the defense also had shown improvement and, most important, had not cost UCLA a game.

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Until Dec. 5 in the Orange Bowl.

“The quickest way to stop the criticism is to win the next game, and this is our next game,” said freshman linebacker Ryan Nece, who got the chance to start because of the injuries and is second on the team in tackles. “To start a new tradition and start a new foundation and start a new era is to win the first game, so that’s what we’ve got to do out there.”

The first game of the new year--Jan. 1--and the foundation of the next season.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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1998 LOG

Although the UCLA defense has been criticized, it held opponents under 20 points three times and, except for the Miami disaster, allowed 25.3 points a game. UCLA allowed 27.5 points a game for the season:

Texas: W 49-31

Houston: W 42-24

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Washington St.: W 49-17

Arizona: W 52-28

Oregon (OT): W 41-38

California: W 28-16

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Stanford: W 28-24

Oregon St.: W 41-34

Washington: W 36-24

USC: W 34-17

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Miami: L 49-45

ROSE BOWL

Wisconsin vs. UCLA

2 p.m. Friday, Channel 7

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