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The Daily Wildcat

 

    UCLA defense rebounding from worst to first

    UCLA defensive end Justin Hickman rushes UA quarterback Willie Tuitama in Arizonas 52-14 win over the then-No. 7 Bruins last November at Arizona Stadium. Hickman, UCLAs only senior defensive starter, ranks second in the Pacific 10 Conference with 5.5 sacks.
    UCLA defensive end Justin Hickman rushes UA quarterback Willie Tuitama in Arizona’s 52-14 win over the then-No. 7 Bruins last November at Arizona Stadium. Hickman, UCLA’s only senior defensive starter, ranks second in the Pacific 10 Conference with 5.5 sacks.

    “”Alone in the Dark”” and “”Doom”” were two of the more horrifyingly bad creations to emerge from Hollywood in 2005.

    The films’ titles could also have applied to the performance of last year’s UCLA defense, which on many fronts was scary, scary bad.

    Enter new defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, previously the secondary coach with the Washington Redskins, whose fiery spirit has helped inspire the unit to rise to third in the nation in total defense entering tomorrow’s contest with the Wildcats.

    “”The main difference has been in the coaches in the locker room,”” defensive end Bruce Davis said in a phone interview. “”They demand excellence from us, and that’s what we give to them.””

    With UCLA’s offense still adjusting to new starters at key skill positions, it’s conceivable to say that the team has forged a new identity through its defense, a surprise given the unit’s tepid performance last season.

    UCLA finished 108th or worse nationally in three major defensive categories – rushing defense, yards allowed and total defense – and entered the fall with only one senior starter, defensive end Justin Hickman.

    Yet the pervasive change in attitude under Walker has transcended any perceived deficiencies on paper.

    The Bruins are giving up only 65.8 yards a game on the ground, a vast improvement over the 232.8-yard average, which ranked last by a large margin in the Pacific 10 Conference last season.

    After shutting out Stanford 31-0 on Saturday, the unit is allowing just fewer than 14 points per game. That total is more than three touchdowns short of last year’s mark and ranks second in the Pac-10 behind USC.

    Quantum Leap

    After ranking in the bottom 10 nationally in three defensive categories last season, UCLA has done an impressive about-face in the early going this year.

    2005 2006*
    Total defense(yards allowed per game) 468.1 221.5
    Points allowed 39.1 12.8
    Total defense(yards allowed per game) 232.8 65.8

    “”We’re very confident, and there’s an infectious, contagious attitude that they’re playing with right now,”” UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell said. “”We’re very excited about the potential of what we can become. We’re playing very, very well right now, but we can play even better, which is going to be fun for us to see as the season unfolds.””

    The Bruins’ main standouts so far have been their top pass rushers, Hickman and Davis.

    The pair have combined for nine of the team’s 14 sacks and mixed with an improved secondary in holding opposing quarterbacks to 155.8 passing yards per game, down from 235.3 in ’05.

    “”It starts up front,”” Davis said. “”We want to just get up front and harass the quarterback and make sure he doesn’t get anything off.””

    “”It’s not just a ‘me and Justin’ thing,”” he added. “”It’s a whole defense thing.””

    Indeed, the unit has seemed to turn the page on last season, when it allowed 27 or more points in each of its final seven contests.

    One of those included Arizona’s 52-14

    victory on Nov. 5, in which the Wildcats, who came in averaging 20.1 points per game, scored touchdowns on their first four possessions.

    UA wide receiver Syndric Steptoe chuckled when asked if he thought Arizona could repeat its point total in Los Angeles tomorrow but said the offense has a chance to light up the scoreboard again if it keeps the right mentality.

    “”How many you score, it’s how many big plays you have,”” he said. “”You have to go in there with the mindset of thinking that you have to make big plays, and they should come.””

    But putting up 50 points against this UCLA defense? That might be something the Bruins’ opponents this year can only hope to see in the movies.

    “”I think it’s a great example, going from worst to first,”” UA head coach Mike Stoops said. “”You look at their defense, and they’ve made an adjustment and played well defensively.””

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