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UCLA’s defense has a million ways to deceive, disrupt and daze you. Just ask LSU

UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert brings LSU quarterback Max Johnson down for a loss.
UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert brings LSU quarterback Max Johnson down for a loss in the first quarter in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Max Johnson eyed the seven UCLA defenders crowding the line of scrimmage before his team’s first big play of the game.

The Louisiana State quarterback shifted his gaze to the sideline, seeking guidance prior to the third down, before he repeated the sequence — scanning the defenders and looking back toward the sideline. He took a few steps toward his offensive linemen and shared some instructions before backing into a shotgun formation.

Johnson’s movements were tentative, his expression uneasy. The Tigers needed to snap the ball quickly or take a delay-of-game penalty. Finally, with the play clock about to expire, LSU coach Ed Orgeron called a timeout to regroup.

There would be no salvaging what came next.

After Johnson took the snap and a bevy of defenders converged around him, Bruins edge rusher Mitchell Agude clobbered the quarterback, forcing a fumble. The Tigers recovered but were stopped well short of the first down.

It was the start of an evening’s worth of frustration for Johnson and LSU during their 38-27 loss to the Bruins on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

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“We can be complicated on the defensive side for the other team to look at,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said after his team sacked Johnson twice, broke up five passes, intercepted another and hurried him five times. “I think it’s actually really simple for our players to understand and they do a great job of that.”

The man who drew Ed Orgeron’s UCLA ‘sissy blue shirt’ ire before Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl talks about what led to the exchange with the LSU coach.

The Tigers struggled to solve UCLA’s tendency to jam the line of scrimmage with defenders on third-and-long situations as well as the Bruins’ pre-snap movement that disguised who would be rushing the quarterback and who would be dropping into coverage.

“We have seven guys on the line of scrimmage and there’s a million different ways that we can roll that thing to make a look,” outside linebacker Bo Calvert said, “but the cool thing is it’s the same presentation every time.”

The Tigers often guessed incorrectly where the pressure would be coming from, allowing Calvert to burst through a hole unblocked for a 10-yard sack in the first quarter.

Johnson adjusted by making quicker throws, but that didn’t always work. Fearing he was about to be hit in the second quarter, Johnson rushed a pass that should have gone for a touchdown on a blown coverage but instead was incomplete because it was underthrown. He later took a shot to the ribs from UCLA safety Quentin Lake, forcing him to overthrow a receiver.

UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert closes in on LSU quarterback Max Johnson for a sack.
UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert closes in on LSU quarterback Max Johnson for a sack in the first half at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With Calvert in his face in the third quarter, Johnson completed a pass — to UCLA’s Caleb Johnson. The linebacker returned his first career interception 34 yards to LSU’s 17-yard line. A few minutes later, the Bruins forced Max Johnson to throw a pass over his shoulder in desperation to avoid a sack.

Johnson also produced some highlights while completing 26 of 46 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. It wasn’t enough on a night the Tigers’ running game produced 49 yards and just two yards per carry.

“Don’t get this the wrong way and write this as a headline — I’m not impressed with our defense,” Kelly said. “It’s what I expect from our defense. I’ve seen it all the time from them. I think it’s a really, really good unit.”

Lake and Calvert celebrated after the game by making snow angels in the confetti that poured onto the field, eagerly anticipating what joys might come next.

UCLA earned a huge win over LSU and vaulted into the College Football Playoff conversation, but the Bruins can’t expect the Pac-12 to boost its résumé.

“It’s going to be fun to be able to show all the different things that we have,” Calvert said, “and just have offenses confused week in and week out.”

Etc.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s three touchdown passes against LSU gave him 44 in his career, moving him past Cory Paus (42) for sixth on the school’s all-time list. Thompson-Robinson’s 260 passing yards gave him 5,522 for his career, overtaking Troy Aikman (5,298) and Tommy Maddox (5,363) for sixth place. Paus is fifth with 6,877 yards. … UCLA has intercepted at least one pass in six consecutive games dating to its victory over Arizona on Sept. 28.


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