Thursday, May 17, 2007

Was our Defense Good Last Year?

This is a topic I've seen discussed numerous times on different message boards over the last few months. Was the 2006 edition of UCLA's defense good or was it just smoke and mirrors? Some will point to the SC game as proof positive that the defense was great last season. Holding the #2 team in the country to 9 points (only 7 on offense) was quite an accomplishment. If you consider that the Bruins were the first team since 2001 to hold a Trojan squad to less than 20 points in a game then it makes that defensive effort all the more impressive. Others will point to UCLA's 7-6 record and some pretty bad defeats (Florida State, California, and WSU) as proof that the defense wasn't good for the entire season. So, was our defense good last year? I think the answer is a resounding yes! The exciting part is that they will be even better this season.

UCLA's defense under Dewayne Walker utilizes an aggressive, blitzing style of attack. He often leaves his corners on islands with little or no help and focuses on pressuring the quarterback and stopping the other team's rushing game. That play calling philosophy made the Bruin defense outstanding against the run. Walker's defense was ranked 1st in the conference and 9th nationally, last season, in rushing defense.

The downside to the strategy is that it can give up big plays, especially on long passes when the receiver gets behind the DB. If you count up the number of our opponents' plays that went for more than 20-yards, there is a direct correlation to Bruin defeats. Teams that had four or more plays in that category beat the Bruins: FSU (9), Oregon(6), WSU(5), Notre Dame(5), Cal(4), and UW(4). Teams that had four or fewer plays in that category ended the day with a loss: Utah(4), Rice(3), Arizona(3), USC (2), ASU (2), Stanford (1), Oregon State (1). Walker basically utilized the opposite philosophy of former defensive coordinator, Larry Kerr. You could call it a "Break don't bend" defense. With four Seniors in the secondary this season, expect the number of big plays to go down and the number of wins to go up.

Walker also works under the principle that the "sum is greater than the parts". He believes that solid fundamentals, team tackling, and great schemes can make up for any athletic deficiencies on a defense. I think he was proven right last year. He took a group of players that few expected to succeed and turned them into the 2nd best defense in the conference. Considering where this squad was in 2005, you have to view the improvement nothing short of miraculous.

The Good

These games were absolutely brilliant from a defensive standpoint. Not all of them were victories, but the blame for those defeats cannot be laid at the feet of the defense. It was these games that solidified UCLA's reputation as a stingy defense that could carry the team.

Stanford. It doesn't get much better than a shutout. That's exactly what the Bruin defense put together at the Rose Bowl on that fine Saturday. The defense even managed to score two touchdowns, one on a blocked punt and the other on a fumble recovery. The Cardinal was in the dumps this last season, it is true. But the Bruins were one of only two teams to hold them to zero points and the only team to shutout the Cardinal when Trent Edwards was in the lineup.

Arizona. Sure, the Cats were struggling when they played UCLA. But we dominated them for most of the game, including holding them to a total of -22 rushing yards. Holding a team to negative rushing yards is very, very difficult, so you have to be impressed. The defense also had as many touchdowns as the Wild Cats offense. Arizona fished the year with victories over WSU, Cal , and Oregon and just missed out on a bowl bid.

Arizona State . The Sun Devils had an up and down year, but they did make the Hawii Bowl. They put up 47 points on Washington State the week before playing the Bruins. We held them to 12 points on their home turf.

Utah . The Utes finished 2007 at 8-5 with a win in the Armed Forces Bowl. They were not a top-tier team, but they had some good players on offense. UCLA blanked them in the 2nd half and the Bruin defense had almost as many points (6) as the Utah offense (10).

Notre Dame. We lost this game, but we were 1 minute, and one big play, away from holding the Irish to 13 points in South Bend . It was a masterful effort by Walker and company that included numerous sacks of Quinn. This game had a lot of 3-and-outs by the Bruin offense that left the defense on the field for a big chunk of the 2nd half. Notre Dame finished 2006 with 10 wins and an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.

Oregon State. This was a 10-win team including a Sun Bowl victory. They had won the four games prior to playing the Bruins with victories over SC and Arizona State. They also won the four games after playing UCLA including victories over Hawaii , Oregon , and Missouri . The Beaver's offense average 28 points a game; we held them to 7.

USC. Obviously the best effort all season and a big win against a top-5 team. UCLA was the first team in 5 years to hold the Trojans to under 20 points. The defense gave up one TD in four quarters and held SC to negative rushing yards in the 2nd half. The defensive accomplishment in this game cannot be overstated enough. SC has had let-down games before, but still managed to find ways to score and win. UCLA completely suffocated them all day long.

The Bad

These two games were just poor defensive efforts all around. Definitely the low point in the season.

Washington State. Not much to say about this game. The Bruins were coming off of the Notre Dame loss. The corners just got burned a number of times and there was almost no pressure on the quarterback. The Bruins actually held the lead at halftime but things quickly fell apart in the second half. A total emotional let down game after the last minute defeat the prior week.

California. The Bears were too much for the Bruins. Like the WSU game, the Bruins kept things close in the first half but things got away in the 3rd quarter. I think Walker was too conservative with his play calling as he was trying to protect his corners. The silver lining is that he put together three brilliant defensive efforts in the next three games and returned to his aggressive blitzing style.

The Ugly

These games ended up with some ugly numbers in the box score that made our defense look bad. However, there were definitely some extraneous circumstances that spoiled an otherwise good defensive effort.

Rice. We ended up beating the Owls, but the game was far too close considering the caliber of players on that team. Don't get me wrong, Rice wasn't all bad, they did make a Bowl game this past season. But UCLA had far superior talent and should have won easily. When you break down the game, Rice only had 184 yards with 124 of those yards coming on three big plays. Almost all their attempts were stopped for losses or short gains with 41 rushing plays going for 3 yards or less.

Oregon. Walker got straight up out coached for one quarter. He even admitted it after the game. The Bruins gave up three quick touchdowns, but after that they put the clamp on the Duck's offense holding them to 10 points over the next 3 quarters. This was a tough road game in a very hostile stadium. I think the results would have been radically different if the boys played this game in Pasadena.

Washington. The Huskies spent the better part of the first half going backwards. I don't think they even had a positive yard until near the end of the 2nd quarter. Ben Olson and the offense went into a coma for the 2nd half and left the defense on the field for far too long. Eventually, Stanback found his legs and was almost impossible to contain. What started out as a blow-out victory by the Bruins ended in defeat.

Florida State . The Florida State loss wasn't entirely on the defense. They actually played well for most of the game. It was a blocked punt, a pick-6, and a fumble inside the 20 (which lead to a FSU touchdown) that accounted for 21 of FSU's 44 points. UCLA lead for the better part of the game and held the advantage going into the fourth quarter. The Noles' offense wasn't the best in the country but they had a ton of talent on that team. They finally put all the pieces together for the Emerald Bowl and it ended up being too much for our guys.

Looking forward to 2007

In 2005, UCLA had the 113th ranked defense in the country and 9th in the PAC-10. The team only had 25 sacks, 8 interceptions, and 2 fumble recoveries. Coming into the 2006 season, we had to replace 3 starting senior linebackers ( Walker , Havner, and London), a starting defensive back (Cassell), and a starting safety (Page). We also had a new defensive coordinator and a lot of new position coaches. That's not exactly starting from a position of strength and few thought the defense could improve enough to be at the top of the conference.

At the end of 2006, we had 40 sacks, 13 interceptions, and 3 fumble recoveries. The team was ranked the 35th defense in the country (a 78 spot improvement) and 2nd in the conference. Coming into the 2007 season, we return 10 starters (most of whom will be Seniors). The team is in their second year under Walker and they can probably spend less time working on fundamentals and more time on the finer points of the game.

I'm very excited to see what this defense will accomplish next season. They had a few up-and-down games last year, but they made huge strives toward becoming one of the best defensive units in the country. With Walker building on his prior accomplishments, this team will be a terror on the field and I expect them to have an outstanding season.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis

JerYang said...

I meant to write: Nice job, now will the offense catch up?

CalPolyBruinFan said...

I sure hope so jeryang. The Spring Practice sure didn't give me much confidence that the offense will be anywhere near as strong as the defense. We do return a lot of starters and, with a new offensive coordinator, maybe they'll put up some better numbers this season.

Jason said...

The Emerald Bowl still is a bit of a question mark.

What will be *really* interesting is how the defense responds to carrying the load for the team, which it looks like it's going to have to do.

In the FSU game, the defense appeared to get tired, annoyed, and frankly flustered as the offense put them in poor position time and again. That's going to likely happen a lot this year - hopefully the age of the defense gives them some greater poise.

Realistic Bruin Fan said...

I enjoyed reading this analysis and your blog...keep up the good work! -RBF

Anonymous said...

A year later reveals Walker hasn't done much...barely achieving bowl eligibility and a 6-7 effort, plus a return of UCLA to getting beat by USC. Guess Walker could beat USC as long as he had their playbook, and hasn't shown he can beat other good Pac 10 teams. From 10-2 the year before Walker, to 7-6 Walker's first year, to 6-7 this year...and two bowl FSU (a bad team) and BYU (not even a BCS team). This is not a Div 1 effort...the defense with senior veterans is capable of barely getting UCLA to bowl eligibility. Who thinks Walker is a genius now?

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