With Bill McGovern possibly out again, how will UCLA’s defense rise against USC?

Arizona's Jayden de Laura, left, throws a touchdown pass beyond the reach of UCLA defensive lineman Jacob Sykes.
Arizona’s Jayden de Laura (7) throws a touchdown pass beyond the reach of UCLA defensive lineman Jacob Sykes. The Bruins defense has struggled of late, with coordinator Bill McGovern unavailable for nearly a month.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Bill McGovern’s absence has left UCLA’s remaining defensive assistants to devise and carry out the game plan for nearly a month.

How does it work?

For much of the time, it’s been a struggle.

Two of the Bruins’ last three opponents exceeded their average scoring totals, resulting in an upset loss to Arizona and a harrowing escape against Arizona State.

Up next, in the season’s biggest game: a USC offense averaging a preposterous 42.4 points and 499.4 yards per game.


McGovern was not at practice earlier this week, leaving the defensive coordinator’s availability in doubt for Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl. UCLA coach Chip Kelly has not addressed the specifics of McGovern’s absence, saying only that he’s been unavailable.

Bill McGovern watches against the Detroit Lions during an NFL football game
Bill McGovern with the New York Giants in 2019
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

After missing the Bruins’ game against Stanford on Oct. 29, McGovern returned to practice the following week but was absent for the game at Arizona State. Kelly said McGovern was on campus and attending meetings the next week before missing the game against Arizona.

Another missed game would leave the defense in the hands of four veteran assistants and analyst Clancy Pendergast, a former defensive coordinator at USC and in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals.

Three UCLA assistants also have defensive coordinator experience. Inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. was defensive coordinator with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks; outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe was defensive coordinator at Yale and co-defensive coordinator at Washington; and defensive backs coach Brian Norwood was defensive coordinator at Baylor and co-defensive coordinator at Tulsa, Kansas State and Navy.

Kelly said Pendergast had assumed McGovern’s role of managing the defense from the press box during games. The new collaboration started on short notice before UCLA faced Stanford.

UCLA is out of the running for the College Football Playoff semifinals. Now the Bruins will eliminate rival USC from contention.

Nov. 15, 2022

“For those guys to all work together without ever having been working together, and then to get it thrown on them the Friday of the Stanford game,” Kelly said this week, “I thought they’ve done a great job.”


The Bruins held the Cardinal to 270 yards during a 38-13 victory, the last time their defense has thrived. UCLA gave up 468 yards to Arizona State and 436 to Arizona.

“We’re just putting the pieces together,” safety Mo Osling III said of the team’s approach without McGovern after the Bruins gave up 18 consecutive points before holding off Arizona State. “The ship’s going to keep going regardless of whether he’s on or he’s off, but I know he’s probably watching us back at home.”

McGovern, who will turn 61 on New Year’s Eve, has another season left on the two-year, $1.8-million contract he signed in February. UCLA’s defense had been spotty even before McGovern started to miss games. The Bruins needed a frantic rally to beat South Alabama while giving up 32 points and were incapable of stopping Oregon in a 45-30 loss, allowing a season-worst 545 yards.

USC’s path to the Pac-12 championship game is clear, but UCLA would need some help to play in the Dec. 2 game. Check out the title game scenarios.

Nov. 16, 2022

For the season, the Bruins rank No. 69 nationally in total defense (378.8 yards allowed per game), No. 71 in scoring defense (26.4 points allowed) and No. 102 in passing defense (254.4 yards allowed). Those totals have increased pressure on an offense than ranks No. 5 in yards per game (504) and No. 11 in points (39.5) to be nearly perfect against top opponents.

UCLA’s stunning 34-28 loss to Arizona last weekend came after the Bruins paired their worst offensive performance of the season with an inability to stop Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura. Continually eluding defenders to extend plays, De Laura threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns.


UCLA’s struggles in pass defense could be particularly problematic when the No. 16 Bruins (8-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) face No. 7 USC (9-1, 7-1) while needing a victory to sustain their hopes of a conference title.

The USC-UCLA game appears a toss-up but NFL scouts have a definite opinion on whether Trojans’ Caleb Williams or Bruins’ Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a better NFL prospect.

Feb. 28, 2023

Already heavily reliant on its passing game, USC likely will throw the ball more without injured running back Travis Dye. Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams averages 301 yards passing per game and has thrown for 31 touchdowns, the latter number tied for third in the country. One of the nation’s most slippery quarterbacks, Williams also has run for 283 yards and six touchdowns.

“It’s a quarterback-driven offense, and he’s such a good football player,” Kelly said. “He can beat you both with his arm and with his legs. He can extend drives, he does a really good job of that, but he can also pick up the tough yardage.”

Until McGovern returns, the Bruins will have to keep toughing it out to get the stops they need.