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On-again, off-again start for Bruins

September 12, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

For half of its first game, UCLA was half a football team.

The Bruins turned back Tennessee after an 11-play drive ended in a missed field goal . . .

And two plays later, the defense was back on the field.

The Volunteers were denied again . . .

And three plays later, the defense was back on the field.

So went the Bruins' yin-and-yang first half in a 27-24 overtime victory. The offense handed over the ball, with four passes intercepted. The defense held, yielding only one touchdown.

"Those interceptions were kind of killing," defensive end Korey Bosworth said. "After the second one and the third one, I was like, 'Come on, we can't be running on and off the field.'

"In the end, the offense turned it around and we got the win."

That had been the game plan, to keep the score manageable until the fourth quarter.

But how many times the defense can follow such a script is still to be seen.

The aroma of postgame fireworks wasn't the only thing lingering at the Rose Bowl that night. There was this question: Can the Bruins' defense hold up while the offense does a tightrope act?

One-act plays have been successful for UCLA in the past, to a point. A decade ago, the Bruins' offense was a three-ring circus, while the defense was the elephant in the room.

That show resulted in 10 consecutive victories to start the season . . . followed by consecutive losses in which UCLA scored 76 points but gave up 87.

This season, the Bruins appear to be the flip side of that high-scoring 1998 team.

"Our trump card is going to be our defense, there's no question about that," said Coach Rick Neuheisel, who on Saturday in Provo, Utah, will send UCLA against a Brigham Young passing game that ranks third in the nation. "[Defensive coordinator] DeWayne Walker has done an excellent job in building a culture here that expects great things. He expects to be the shutdown defense that can affect the game in a favorable way. We're going to need that."

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Danny Farmer was UCLA's leading receiver in 1998, when offense propelled the Bruins to that 10-0 mark and a No. 3 national ranking.

"We knew we could score any time," he recalled. "If we had the ball last, we'd win the game."

But with national title hopes on the line, they didn't. A 49-45 loss to Miami cost the Bruins a shot at the national title. Then came a 38-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

"We had a pretty young defense, with a lot of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen," said Cade McNown, UCLA's quarterback that season.

Sometimes even when the Bruins scored it wasn't a good thing.

"We'd go out and 60 seconds later we'd be in the end zone," McNown said. "We put a tired defense back on the field."

In the first half of this season's opener against Tennessee, with a transfer quarterback operating behind a patchwork line, the Bruins did much the same -- only without the "be in the end zone" part. Kevin Craft had four passes intercepted and the offense generated only 85 yards, going three plays or fewer on five of its first seven drives. The scorecard at halftime: Interceptions 4, Punts 3.

Yet Tennessee's lead was only 14-7.

Eventually, though, UCLA's defense being on the field so much may have taken a toll. In the fourth quarter, the Bruins twice failed to hold leads, giving up drives that led to a touchdown and a field goal.

"We knew coming into the season that the offense was new, with guys who hadn't played much before and a new quarterback," linebacker Reggie Carter said. "It was going to take some time to develop. We knew we were going to have to lead the team, keep us in games, until they got clicking."

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At key times in 1998, McNown and the Bruins' offense played a similar waiting game -- in vain.

The Bruins averaged nearly 40 points. McNown threw for more than 300 yards six times, finishing third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. Tackle Kris Farris won the Outland Trophy as college football's top lineman.

"We had the weapons," McNown said. "Most of the offense had been together a long time. Most linemen had been starting since they were sophomores. We felt like this was the culmination of years of hard work."

A decade later, UCLA's defense is not quite as experienced as a group, but there are veterans up front and a mix of new talent, even if the unit lacks the swagger of the 2007 crew.

"It's a more blue-collar bunch," third-year coordinator Walker said, comparing this year's defense with last year's. "They really don't have the resumes as the group we had last year. I think we're faster. I think we're a little more athletic. It's going to be interesting to see how we respond."

Through three quarters against Tennessee, they responded well. Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton had completed only 13 of 30 passes heading into the fourth quarter. The defense also forced a fumble with Tennessee six yards away from a two-touchdown lead.

"Three and out, that's what we need to do," defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said. "We need to get off the field. I love playing football, but I need to get off the field. We can help our offense by getting them good field position."

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Farmer has a point he'd like to make in defense of that 1998 UCLA defense.

"It created a lot of turnovers," he said. "They never lost a game for us."

That remains open to debate. In that fateful loss to Miami, McNown threw for 513 yards and five touchdowns, with the Bruins getting 670 total yards. But Miami had 689 total yards and came from 17 points down in the second half.

So, in the end that season, UCLA could not overcome its shortcoming.

One game into this season, it has.

"What's the saying, 'Offense wins games, but defense wins championships' "? McNown said. "There's a lot of truth in that."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

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