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UCLA defense is hardly airtight

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Times Staff Writer

TUCSON -- No one in the defensive huddle was panicking. There were no angry words, no fingers pointed, even as UCLA surrendered one big gain after another, one touchdown after another.

“Nobody’s really yelling,” linebacker Christian Taylor said. “You’re just trying to catch your breath for the next play.”

It was that kind of day for the Bruins defenders. A day when Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama stung them for 341 yards passing and three touchdowns. A day when Arizona running back Nicolas Grigsby added 124 yards and another score on the ground.

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And though the defense steadied itself in the second half, the hole was already deep enough for a 34-27 loss at Arizona Stadium on Saturday.

“That was the game,” defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker said. “Too many big plays.”

Walker called it a “shocker” for a unit laden with upperclassmen who came into the season expecting to dominate.

Instead, the defense statistically ranks about the middle of the Pacific 10 Conference. Early on, it gave up too many yards against Stanford, Brigham Young and Utah.

But Walker felt his players had hit their stride recently. Even in the loss to Notre Dame, they gave up only 140 yards. And he felt they played well in spurts against Washington State last week, despite surrendering 545 yards.

Saturday was a different story.

The first sign of trouble came on Arizona’s first play when Tuitama lobbed a fluttering pass, the kind that often gets intercepted. It went for a 21-yard gain, leading to a field goal.

On the Wildcats’ next possession, Grigsby burst through the line, then cut left with a move that sent defenders Alterraun Verner and Chris Horton stumbling into each other, leaving a path to the end zone.

“It was horrible,” cornerback Trey Brown said of Arizona’s 27 first-half points. “That’s not our mentality. That’s not our style.”

The Bruins had talked about needing to pressure Tuitama, who had a big game at Washington a week earlier. But Arizona effectively moved the pocket and -- with a step here, a step there -- Tuitama bought time.

“We didn’t get to him enough early,” defensive tackle Kevin Brown said. “He just sat back there and made plays.”

Such as a 55-yard touchdown pass to running back Chris Jennings, who came out of the backfield and got a favorable matchup against linebacker Taylor. Then, an eight-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Turner.

Walker said he might have put too much pressure on his defensive backs by placing them in man-to-man coverage, hoping to get at the quarterback.

But that doesn’t explain the third-quarter breakdown when the defense miscommunicated on man coverage, leaving Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski wide open for a 27-yard touchdown catch. And it doesn’t explain Grigsby gaining all those yards, mostly on cutbacks.

“I just knew they were coming down hard,” the running back said. “They overpursued a lot.”

Walker will spend today poring over game film, analyzing his calls, but his players said that schemes had little to do with what transpired.

As one of the defensive leaders, Taylor reduced it to the most elemental level.

“It’s all about one-on-one battles,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to make tackles. You’ve got to be able to cover guys.”

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david.wharton@latimes.com


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