De­fense is more of run­ning joke

Los Angeles Times - - COLEGE FOOTBALL - By Ben Bolch ben.bolch@la­times.com Twit­ter: @latb­bolch

The au­topsy may be pend­ing, but a foren­sics ex­am­i­na­tion of UCLA’s badly man­gled run de­fense is al­ready well un­der way.

In­juries have been a fac­tor, cer­tainly. So has the youth move­ment re­quired by con­tin­u­ally re­plac­ing wounded play­ers among the front seven. Tack­ling has been a prob­lem among new and old play­ers alike.

Bruins coach Jim Mora also pointed out this week that line­backer Kenny Young and de­fen­sive end Ja­cob Tui­oti-Mariner were the only play­ers up front with any sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ence head­ing into the sea­son af­ter the team lost Takkarist McKin­ley, Ed­die Van­der­does, Eli Ankou and Jayon Brown to the NFL.

UCLA has con­tin­u­ally re­stocked its ros­ter with top-25 re­cruit­ing classes, but even the most highly rated play­ers can take time to per­form ad­e­quately at the col­lege level.

“They’re ta­lented,” Mora said of his young play­ers, “but they’re in­ex­pe­ri­enced, and when you’re play­ing with in­ex­pe­ri­enced guys, you tend to have in­con­sis­ten­cies.”

Those ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties have added up to some un­sightly num­bers. UCLA has al­lowed 2,729 yards rush­ing this sea­son, putting it 65 yards short of a school op­po­nent record with at least three games left start­ing Satur­day when the Bruins (4-5 over­all, 2-4 Pac-12 Con­fer­ence) face Ari­zona State (5-4, 4-2) at the Rose Bowl.

The Bruins gave up a school-worst 2,793 yards rush­ing in 2005 on the way to a 10-2 sea­son that in­cluded a vic­tory over North­west­ern in the Sun Bowl.

UCLA cur­rently has a less plea­sur­able con­nec­tion to the Wild­cats: The Bruins are giv­ing up a worst-in-then­ation 303.2 yards rush­ing per game, putting them on pace to be­come the first team from a Power Five con­fer­ence to give up at least 300 yards per game on the ground since North­west­ern did so in 2002.

Mora said the run de­fense’s strug­gles are not a re­sult of per­son­nel fail­ing to fit the style of de­fense he wants to play.

“You’re al­ways go­ing to step back and say, ‘OK, are we do­ing the right thing in re­cruit­ing and match­ing play­ers to scheme?’ ” Mora said. “And I be­lieve we are.”

The list of play­ers who have missed games be­cause of in­juries or ail­ments in­cludes de­fen­sive line­men Jae­lan Phillips, Boss Ta­ga­loa, Matt Dick­er­son and Rick Wade as well as lineback­ers Young, Josh Woods, Krys Barnes, Bre­land Brandt and Lo­keni Toailoa.

The re­sult­ing patch­work de­fense has given up runs of 80, 72, 71, 69, 66, 62, 58, 43, 39, 37, 37, 34, 33 and 25 yards this sea­son. Break­downs in tack­ling among the sec­ondary have con­trib­uted to some of those plays.

“We haven’t tack­led well enough on the back end to pre­vent so many of those long gains,” Mora said. “It’s those ex­plo­sive runs that have made our yards per game and yards per at­tempt just look so in­cred­i­bly bad. We’ve given up so many — and I’m not talk­ing about 15yard runs, I’m talk­ing about re­ally long runs.”

The Bruins are giv­ing up 6.0 yards per carry, putting them on pace to break an­other school op­po­nent record (the 2005 team al­lowed a school-worst 5.4 yards per carry).

UCLA’s de­fense might get tempted to run the other way against Ari­zona State. The Sun Dev­ils are com­ing off a 41-30 vic­tory over Colorado in which they tal­lied 381 yards rush­ing, their high­est to­tal in a con­fer­ence game since 1997. Tail­back De­mario Richard (189 yards) and quar­ter­back Manny Wilkins (95) set ca­reer highs in rush­ing yardage and tail­backs Eno Ben­jamin and Kalen Bal­lage added a com­bined 93 yards on the ground.

Ari­zona State also fea­tures sev­eral dy­namic re­ceivers, pre­vent­ing the Bruins from a sin­gu­lar focus with their de­fen­sive plan.

“You can’t take ev­ery­body,” Mora said, “and com­mit them to the run.”

Hurry back

UCLA corner­back Dar­nay Holmes must sit out the first half of the game against the Sun Dev­ils as pun­ish­ment for his tar­get­ing ejec­tion dur­ing the Bruins’ 48-17 loss to Utah last week.

Phillips is con­sid­ered ques­tion­able be­cause of an un­spec­i­fied in­jury that kept him out of prac­tice early in the week.

“We’re plan­ning that he won’t be with us,” Bruins de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Tom Bradley said, “and hop­ing that he will.”

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