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UCLA isn't letting its defense down

UCLA isn't letting its defense down
UCLA teammates Anthony Jefferson, left, and Priest Willis, right, tackle Arizona State running back D.J. Foster during the Bruins' victory last month. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Ask UCLA players about the identity of the team's defense and collect the answers.

"Relentless," safety Anthony Jefferson said.

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"Bend, don't break," linebacker Myles Jack said.

"Tenacious, courageous, nasty," linebacker Eric Kendricks.

All of which have been true this season — at times.

UCLA's defense has stood strong, even salvaged some situations. The Bruins' defense scored three touchdowns against Virginia. It made two key stands late against Texas. An interception returned for a touchdown tilted the Arizona State game UCLA's way.

UCLA's defense has also surrendered ground, and a game. Utah drove 63 yards, all on runs, to set up the game-winning field goal in a 30-28 victory on Saturday.

It was said to be another "learning" moment for a defense that is still experiencing growing pains heading into Saturday's game against No. 12 Oregon.

The Bruins lost some key defensive players from last season, including their best pass rushers. They lost Randall Goforth, a veteran safety, in the second game this season. They are under different management, with linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich replacing Lou Spanos as defensive coordinator.

None of that should matter, is the overall opinion.

"I'm confident that we've got the guys who can get it done," Ulbrich said. "I'm confident we can become the defense we are capable of becoming."

Coach Jim Mora saw an inkling of that against Utah.

"The last drive, they got it going on us, made a couple plays, but I thought we found our defensive identity last week," Mora said. "I told them I think that's who we are a little bit. We were hunting, pressuring, on our feet making plays."

The Bruins need some more of that this week.

Utah had an offensive will. Oregon has an offensive way.

Even as wounded Ducks, with injuries leading to pass protection problems, they are a handful. Quarterback Marcus Mariota remains a Heisman Trophy candidate and he has a fleet of speedy running backs and receivers.

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"We need to be disciplined," Kendricks said. "If we're not, they are going to exploit us."

The numbers are not so different from a year ago for the Bruins. The passing yards given up are up from 217 to 271 per game but the rushing yards given up are down from 168 to 158. UCLA does fall short on sacks, with only seven in five games. The Bruins had 32 in 13 games last season.

UCLA gave up 23.2 points per game last season and is giving up 25.8 this season. And some of the best offenses UCLA will face lie ahead — Arizona, California and USC come after Oregon.

"It's an incredible challenge on defense," Mora said. "On offense, you can call a play and if it works, it works. If it doesn't, you move on to the next play. If you see something in a game on television that looks good, you put it in and try it."

He added that on defense, "you have to account for every variable. So you see a good looking blitz and think, 'Let's put that in.' Then you have to make sure all rules hold up on all the different things you can see. The plethora of everything we're seeing from offenses is absolutely nuts sometimes."

The Bruins say they have the personnel to be a force on defense.

"Our biggest thing," Jefferson said, "is to do it play after play."

The Bruins gave up 540 yards against Memphis but the offense covered in a 42-35 victory. Arizona State gained 626 yards but UCLA's offense made it a non-issue in a 62-27 victory.

Things caught up with the Bruins last week. Utah had only 342 yards, but 242 were on the ground. And the Utes pushed the Bruins around on the last drive.

"When things are happening that way, you tend to want to do things to stop it and that's when it snowballs" Kendricks said. "Everyone on the defensive front wanted to stop it so bad that we started making stuff up."

Ulbrich saw players leaving assignments, thereby creating holes, trying to make a play.

"They all want to be that guy," Ulbrich said. "Before we went on the field, I felt it in a good way, 'We're going to go out there and we're going to stop them.' But what happened was guys abandoned their responsibilities a little bit."

Ulbrich accepts some of the blame.

"I can always do something different," Ulbrich said. "It's on everybody's shoulders."

The result was the most yards UCLA has given up rushing since it surrendered 325 in a game last season.

That opponent: Oregon.

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