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After early-season struggles, UCLA's defense is pointed in the right direction

After early-season struggles, UCLA's defense is pointed in the right direction
UCLA's Keisean Lucier-South (11) celebrates with Adarius Pickett (6) after intercepting a pass against California in the second half. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

As he crossed the goal line with the ball cradled in his left arm, Keisean Lucier-South extended his right arm into the chilly nighttime air and pointed his index finger skyward.

The moment late in UCLA’s blowout victory over California on Saturday served as a triumphant rebuttal for the Bruins linebacker and a defense that had absorbed some far less pleasurable finger-pointing.

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It was little more than a year ago that renowned talent evaluator Rob Rang tweeted out footage of a play showing UCLA linebacker Krys Barnes jogging behind a Memphis receiver who took a screen pass and raced for a 42-yard touchdown. Rang pointed his index finger at Barnes before the snap to isolate his lack of effort on the play.

Zip ahead to Saturday and Barnes was among a bevy of Bruins whizzing around the field. Barnes intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter, part of a sequence in which UCLA forced turnovers on four consecutive possessions.

“We’re out there flying around,” Barnes said of the Bruins’ mentality.

The revival of UCLA’s defense has come at dizzying speed. Over the last six quarters, the Bruins have allowed four yards per play and 2.3 points per quarter as opposed to the 5.7 yards per play and 9.7 points per quarter they gave up earlier this season.

Cornerback Darnay Holmes said the turnaround started late last month with a mandate from coach Chip Kelly. UCLA had just surrendered 281 yards and 24 points in the second half of a loss to Colorado when Kelly entered the locker room and made his pitch to the weary Bruins.

“Coach Kelly came in and was like, ‘We need energy,’ ” Holmes recalled. “ ‘We need to bring energy to the table each and every day. You know, start on Monday.’ ”

The Bruins sustained their intensity from Monday through Saturday without a letdown. They also more fully embraced the “So what, now what?” mantra they had adopted over the summer to immediately erase bad plays from their memory.

Forgetfulness was needed after they gave up 24 points in the first half against Washington. They rebounded to hold the Huskies to seven points the rest of the game in a 31-24 loss.

“We definitely stuck to it and worked harder and harder and saw that no one was going to make us give up,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Odua Isibor , one of 13 true or redshirt freshmen to receive significant playing time on defense.

UCLA forced five turnovers during its 37-7 victory over Cal, a performance reminiscent of Kelly’s Oregon defenses that led the nation in takeaways during his four seasons at the school.

Kelly got part of that gang back together when he hired Jerry Azzinaro and Don Pellum, who had worked under him with the Ducks, as UCLA’s defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach, respectively. The early results stirred reminders … of UCLA’s defense from 2017, when it allowed a school-record 3,736 rushing yards as well as 36.6 points per game.

The Bruins gave up 36.4 points per game during an 0-5 start and at one point ranked as the worst defense in the nation on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 53.8% of their chances in that situation.

But the players could feel a momentum shift earlier this month, with linebacker Tyree Thompson pronouncing the defense on the verge of greatness. They lived up to the prediction by limiting Cal to a touchdown, the first time UCLA had held an opponent under 10 points since a 17-9 victory over Utah in 2015.

The performance nudged the Bruins out of being ranked among the worst defenses in the nation in a slew of categories, though there remains plenty of climbing room. UCLA ranks No. 78 nationally in pass defense (233 yards allowed per game), No. 86 in rushing defense (176.7 yards allowed per game), No. 89 in total defense (409.7 yards allowed per game) and tied for No. 95 in scoring defense (31.5 points allowed per game).

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Kelly said his players have improved their tackling while playing more decisively, payoff that comes from what might seem like an endless series of practice repetitions.

“You don’t rep it until you do it right,” Kelly said, “you rep it until you can’t do it wrong.”

Isibor said the Bruins also play faster in practices than in games, making games feel like what he described as “going slow-motion almost.” Isibor looked more like he was stuck on fast-forward when he raced into the backfield and knocked the ball out of Cal quarterback Brandon McIlwain’s grasp, allowing Lucier-South to pick up the ball en route to the end zone.

All that was left to do was to point the way.

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