UCLA’s new defensive scheme produces familiar result in season-opening loss

UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert looks to tackle Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer.
UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert, left, looks to tackle Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer during the first half of the Bruins’ 48-42 season-opening loss Saturday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

New season, new scheme, new assistant coach.

Same result.

With hopes of finally turning around their recent defensive struggles, UCLA made another sour first impression to open the third year of the Chip Kelly era Saturday. The Bruins (0-1) gave up 525 yards and five rushing touchdowns in their 48-42 loss to Colorado, a team with a new starting quarterback and a running back making his college debut.

Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer, a senior who converted to safety halfway through his college career before returning to offense this season, was efficient with 257 yards and one touchdown on 20-of-31 passing. Running back Jarek Broussard, a sophomore who redshirted his first two seasons due to knee injuries, gashed the Bruins for 187 yards on 31 carries and three touchdowns.

“We made him look better than he was,” junior linebacker Bo Calvert said. “But obviously, going into the first game … it’s the first time you’re full-go for a whole game for 60 minutes. Seeing that in the beginning, having a hard run game in the beginning, having to stop that is something new just because it’s the first game.”


UCLA’s struggles with turnovers in the first half creates a deficit too big for a second-half rally to conquer in a 48-42 loss to Colorado.

UCLA hasn’t been ranked in the top 100 nationally in total defense since 2016, a star-crossed year in which they were 47th in yards allowed but also had the second-worst rushing offense in the country and went 4-8. During the first two seasons under Kelly and defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, the Bruins went from 102nd in total defense in 2018 to 113th last year. The decline came with a drastic regression in pass defense, where the Bruins were ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams last season.

Enter Brian Norwood.

Norwood was hired in January to replace Paul Rhoads when the former defensive backs coach left to take the defensive coordinator position at Arizona. In addition to coaching defensive backs, Norwood was named UCLA’s defensive passing game coordinator and assistant head coach.

Norwood’s impact on the Bruins was immediately evident in their 4-2-5 alignment Saturday, similar to what he ran last season with Navy, where he was the co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.

Instead of dropping back in coverage, the Bruins needed their extra defensive backs to attack the line of scrimmage in run support as the Buffaloes jumped ahead by 28 in the first half after four UCLA turnovers. With starting running back Alex Fontenot injured Saturday, Broussard helped Colorado gain more rushing yards in the first half (162) than UCLA had total (155).

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The four UCLA turnovers, the same number of miscues they suffered in the 2019 season-opening loss to Cincinnati, led to short fields for the Buffaloes. Colorado’s average starting field position was at its own 48-yard line compared to UCLA’s at its own 25.

“We put our defense in some adverse situations in the first half and we dug too deep a hole in the first half to be able to come back,” Kelly said. UCLA held Colorado to field goal attempts on four of its five second-half drives, blocking two kicks. It was a dim silver lining for Kelly, who is still winless in openers at UCLA.

Defensive backs stuffed the stat sheet for the Bruins with the team’s three-leading tacklers coming from the position group. Qwuantrezz Knight made his UCLA debut with six tackles while safety Stephan Blaylock led the team with 11, followed by safety Quentin Lake’s nine tackles. Lake also blocked a 44-yard field goal.

The cancellation of two Pac-12 games endangered at least two weekends’ worth of games and revealed the challenges of staging a season amid a pandemic.