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UCLA defense emerges from crisis to find its identity

Timid and indecisive while being beaten down and run over in losses to Kansas State and Stanford to start the season, the Bruins have turned the tables in victories over Houston and Texas by initiating the action and dishing out punishment.

September 28, 2010|By Chris Foster

Courtney Viney, a seldom-used cornerback, had a pointed question for his UCLA teammates before last Saturday's football game at Texas.

"He asked us, 'Who are you?' " senior defensive tackle David Carter said. "He said, 'Are we going to be a welcome mat people walk all over, or we going be a team that, when we go out, people are afraid of us?' "

The answer came in a dominant 34-12 victory over a Longhorns team that had been ranked No. 7 in the nation.

UCLA's defense, ground down by 313 yards rushing in a loss to Kansas State and mauled into submission in a rout by Stanford, left Austin smelling like a Texas rose.

How did it happen? A lack of experience was cited as an excuse for the early season woes, but playing three games before facing the Longhorns removed the wide-eyed look. There was also a call for the Bruins' best players to start making good things happen, a cue taken by star linebacker Akeem Ayers, who had a monster game against Texas.

And Viney's question cut right to the heart of the matter, acting as something of a cattle prod before the defense faced the Longhorns.

"Courtney had it," Carter said. "It was infectious. It spread through the whole team. This is UCLA, we're a decorated program. We're not nice."

Viney, a junior from Fresno, has been trying to contribute guidance and leadership in the absence of being able to help on the field. "I get to see a lot more of what's going on out there," he said Tuesday. "I read our critics. I bring things to the guys' attention."

After a slow start, Viney liked what he saw against Texas.

The Longhorns had first downs on their first three plays. But then, on a third-down play, Ayers arrived at the same time as a pass, clobbering Texas running back Fozzy Whittaker two yards short of another first down.

From that point on, the Longhorns' offense was unsettled.

Ayers had two tackles for losses — including one sack — forced a fumble and made an acrobatic interception.

"Akeem is always around the ball," said Chuck Bullough, UCLA's defensive coordinator. "We let him go do his thing. But those plays he makes, going up to get the ball like that, that's . . . in his genes."

Ayers has done it two games in a row. Against Houston, he made a leaping interception at the goal line to thwart a first-and-goal situation. And he's been getting some help.

Middle linebacker Patrick Larimore had 11 tackles in the Houston game, including three for losses, and forced a fumble. Against Texas, strong safety Tony Dye twice made one-on-one tackles on fourth-down plays in UCLA territory, linebacker Sean Westgate was in on 11 tackles, free safety Rahim Moore had seven solo tackles, and cornerback Sheldon Price had six, doubling his season total.

This from a defense that laid down for Kansas State's Daniel Thomas, who gained 234 yards rushing in the season opener. That, though, was the first start for six of seven players along the UCLA defensive front.

"My first year as a starter I was thinking a lot about everything but playing," Ayers said. "When you think, you really can't play fast. Guys who haven't been starting are starting to get comfortable and are not thinking as much, so they are able to fly around and make plays."

The Bruins may have just required the sink-or-swim moment delivered by Stanford. The Cardinal plunged UCLA into the deep end by rushing for 221 yards in a 35-0 embarrassment on Sept 11.

After that game, "There was a big emphasis on discipline and doing your job," Dye said.

Players began showing up for extra workouts and film sessions.

"At the start of the season, there were maybe 10 guys down there doing that extra work," Carter said. "Now we have 50-60.

"Everybody found their niche and learned what they needed to learn about themselves in those first two games. Now we're going out and building our resume."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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