Even the best-laid plans are subject to the whim of UCLA sophomore linebacker Akeem Ayers.
Stanford went with a safe-and-sane pass to receiver Chris Owusu, who was wrapped up by cornerback Alterraun Verner for a short gain. But Ayers swooped in from the left, knocked the ball free and recovered the fumble.
Then there is the to-Ayers-is-human side. UCLA had San Diego State stopped on the seven-yard line when a third-down pass fell incomplete. Except that Ayers grabbed a chunk of jersey on the play, giving the Aztecs a second shot, which produced a touchdown.
Such growing pains are easy to endure.
“You look at Akeem, and he may not always be in the right spot, but he finds a way to get his hands on the ball,” senior linebacker Reggie Carter said. “That’s great because you can teach scheme, but you can’t teach that ability.”
So though Ayers might sometimes cause discomfort for defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, he can be even more painful for opponents.
“I don’t know if he is a finished product yet, but you know what, some of that is why he’s good,” Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “There is constantly the effort to keep him disciplined and playing within the defense, but we also benefit from some of that instinct he carries with him.”
Such instinct could serve the Bruins well this week.
Oregon, with its sleight-of-hand spread offense, comes to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, meaning, “You have to get on your toes and stay on your toes,” free safety Rahim Moore said. “And you have to tackle.”
It puts Ayers in his element.
A year ago, Ayers made his second career start against the Ducks. He finished with six tackles, including a sack, chasing down Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon’s nimble quarterback, from behind.
“I just watched the film of that game,” Carter said. “On the sack, Akeem fell down, got up and still caught Masoli.
“Game time comes, your street ball instincts can take over. You want to just follow the ball. He may not always follow the guide because he wants to be around the ball.”
That has always been Ayers’ way, pulling off such ad-libs by tapping into his raw skills. He has the size of a defensive end (6 feet 4, 252 pounds) and the speed of a receiver (he averaged nearly 20 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns as a senior at Verbum Dei High).
Against Kansas State, which also ran the spread offense, Ayers had five solo tackles -- including two sacks and another tackle for a loss. With UCLA leading by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, he picked up one of those sacks on a first-down play that started the Wildcats on a three-and-out series.
Of course, the difference in Kansas State’s spread offense and the one run by Oregon is like the difference between Manhattan, Kan., and Manhattan, New York.
Ayers is aware of the chore ahead, but can’t fight nature.
“I don’t want to mess everyone else up on defense, but when I see I can make a play, I go,” he said. He can tell when it was the right choice.
“When you make a big hit, most of the time it feels like you didn’t hit anything,” Ayers said. “You don’t even feel the contact.”
On the other hand . . .
“When I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, I can tell,” Ayers said. “Reggie is yelling at me.”
Against Kansas State, Ayers also had a personal-foul penalty on a third-down play that extended a drive. The Wildcats ended up missing a field goal.
“Compared to last year, he’s doing a lot better,” Carter said, but joked, “I tell him that he should send me a card on Father’s Day because I have to make sure he’s always in the right spot and that he’s not getting in trouble.”
Carter understands the thought process.
“If the guy is not near the play or ball, Akeem doesn’t always want to be bothered with it,” Carter said. “That’s understandable when you’re young. As you get older, you realize you have to work in the scheme. He could hurt us one day.”
Ayers smiled while being asked about the free-for-all style he throws at opponents.
“As a linebacker, you got to be aggressive,” Ayers said. “You have to be all over the field. That’s what I’m trying to do. If you’re around every play, you’re around the ball. Run to the ball and hit.”
That is what caught Bullough’s eye when he was recruiting Ayers. Asked what jumped out at him, Bullough said, “That playoff game.” Ayers had 22 tackles against Temple City in a 2006 playoff game.
“I said, ‘That’s the guy I want right there,’ ” said Bullough, who was UCLA’s linebackers coach at the time.
Ayers was used mostly in nickel situations last season yet was still eighth on the team in tackles, finishing ahead of defensive tackle Brian Price. He was also third in sacks, with four.
“His knowledge of our base defense has improved a lot,” Bullough said. “That’s why we trust him out there.”
Still, there remains a Wild West approach to Ayers’ game.
“If he’s talking to me before the ball is snapped, then I know he knows exactly what he’s supposed to be doing,” Carter said.
“He has this instinct that something is coming. When he has an instinct coming, he goes.”