UCLA’s defense tries to correct shocking struggles

LOS ANGELES (AP) UCLA is searching for equilibrium between its defense and offense.

The Bruins have an offense as good as any in college football, ranking in the top 10 in points per game, yards per game and yards per play. They have a defense that ranks in the bottom 10 in points per game, yards per game and yards per play.

The offensive production isn’t a surprise, not with the presence of quarterback Josh Rosen, but the defensive breakdowns are an absolutely shock to a program that has prided itself on its play on that side of the ball under head coach Jim Mora.

”Did I see it? No, I didn’t see it coming like that,” defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said.

Mora made his reputation as a defensive coach in the NFL. Bradley oversaw some of the best defenses in college football history at Penn State. The defensive line and secondary were regarded as the strongest and deepest positions on the team. Five-star defensive end Jaelan Phillips and five-star cornerback Darnay Holmes were the centerpieces of another strong recruiting class.

Yet, UCLA is allowing 43.3 points and 524.8 yards per game. The run defense is the worst in the FBS, allowing 307.5 yards per game, and still has to face a daunting gauntlet of top Pac-12 running backs, including Phillip Lindsay of Colorado on Saturday.

Players settling into new roles and injuries have played a part, but Bradley has attributed the majority of the problems to poor fundamentals.

”I think we’re just going through some growing pains. I know we’re struggling a little bit, too, but I really think we’re going to get better,” Bradley said. ”I think it comes down to once again a lot of our big plays are we’re not so much out of position as we are missing tackles and things of that nature. But anytime you go through this it’s one thing here, one thing there. It’s just time for everybody to get on the same page and play the same way.”

UCLA reinstated tackling drills in practice this week in hopes of addressing some of those struggles. The work, primarily during position drills but also after practice as a handful of players drove their shoulders into tackling sleds to push them up and down the field, has two goals.

The first is to address the breakdowns in the open field that have been evident since Texas A&M built a 44-10 lead in the third quarter of the season opener, only for Rosen to rally the team for a 45-44 win. UCLA has allowed 28 explosive runs, which Bradley defines as carries of 10 or more yards, and 17 explosive passes of at least 15 yards.

The second is to address the spate of targeting penalties against UCLA. Safety Adarius Pickett became the third UCLA defender ejected for targeting in as many games on a helmet-to-helmet hit to Stanford tight end Drew Schultz.

The other issues hindering UCLA seem to be more mental than physical.

Defensive lineman Boss Tagaloa said the defense’s effort waned in the second half as the Cardinal scored touchdowns on all five possessions.

Bradley said players have frequently been out of position because of a lack of faith that teammates will be in the right position.

”Don’t ad-lib because you think he’s not going to be there,” Bradley said.

Getting back to basics has been Bradley’s rallying cry this week, and Tagaloa believes the defense will do just that to pick up their end of the bargain with the suddenly dominant offense.

”Coming back after a game like last week, the last two weeks, I feel like we’re more motivated just to work harder,” Tagaloa said. ”We know what we have to do and I think we’re going to get it done.”

More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25