Even with offensive guru Norm Chow in the press box, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel turned to his defense with the game on the line.
It was the right call.
UCLA stopped Tennessee’s Montario Hardesty on fourth-and-2 in the closing minutes, and the Bruins made it two in a row against the Volunteers with a 19-15 victory Saturday.
“We will be a better offense,” Neuheisel said. “But given the way our offense was playing, I thought it was better to put it in (the defense’s) hands.”
Trailing by 6, the Vols (1-1) had a chance to take the lead after driving 52 yards, but UCLA (2-0) held fast and Lane Kiffin lost for the first time as Tennessee coach.
The Vols’ defense, led by Monte Kiffin, had been battering the Bruins’ offense for much of the day. UCLA had only 186 yards of offense compared to Tennessee’s 208. The Bruins had four fewer first downs, held the ball for three fewer minutes and had 60 more yards in penalties.
Tennessee reached UCLA’s Kevin Prince many times, but usually after he released the ball. After Hardesty was stopped, Tennessee got a safety when Dennis Rogan sacked Prince, giving him a bloody mouth.
An inept Jonathan Crompton couldn’t do anything with the last-minute opportunity after getting the ball back, taking a sack and throwing three incomplete passes.
Lane Kiffin said he saw a few of his players trying to point fingers in the locker room after the game.
“I told them that isn’t what we are. That isn’t what a championship mentality is. A little bit of finger pointing came out and we have to teach them,” he said. “You either win or you lose, and everybody on that team lost today.”
For the Bruins, the win in Neyland Stadium in front of 102,239 fans was a big step toward recovering from last year’s 4-8 finish.
“We’re hungry,” safety Rahim Moore said. “We are trying to come out every day and every weekend to prove to the world that UCLA is who UCLA is.”
For the Vols, it means a lot of work this week as they prepare for a trip to Florida – especially on Crompton, who unraveled after throwing five touchdown passes in the season opener against Western Kentucky.
On the first play after halftime, he threw his third interception of the day and second to Moore, who has five for the season. Kai Forbath kicked a 39-yard field goal four plays later for a 13-10 lead.
“I just read the quarterback,” Moore said. “I knew that Crompton had some skills, but I also knew that he could throw a pick because any quarterback can. I was just sitting back and reading the quarterback.”
Kiffin, who has pledged not to shuffle quarterbacks during games, stuck with Crompton. Tennessee went three-and-out on its next two drives, and Forbath answered with field goals of 31 and 47 yards to give UCLA a 19-10 lead with 2:39 in the third quarter.
Forbath, who beat Tennessee with an overtime field goal in California last season, made four field goals in the rematch.
Prince finished 11-for-23 for 101 yards and the one touchdown. Johnathan Franklin had 80 yards rushing.
In the second quarter, Crompton fumbled a snap at the Tennessee 36, and Jerzy Siewierski recovered. A few plays later, Prince threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Chane Moline as he was being hit, tying the score at 10 with 7:09 before halftime.
Crompton threw interceptions on the next two drives. He overthrew Gerald Jones on the first and hit Moore instead. On the second, he threw right to Alterraun Verner.
“I didn’t do a very good job today taking care of Jonathan,” Lane Kiffin said. “I gave him a couple of calls unfortunately that didn’t put him in the best position. We’ve got to do a better job around him.”
Crompton completed 13 of 26 passes for 93 yards. Hardesty finished with 89 yards rushing.
But the Bruins couldn’t capitalize on either. UCLA went three-and-out on the first, and Forbath missed a 51-yard field goal to end the half.
UCLA had its own problems hanging onto the ball. The Bruins fumbled five times, losing the ball once.
Willie Bohannan sacked Prince, causing a fumble, and Gerald Williams recovered at the UCLA 11. Hardesty took care of the rest on the next play to put Tennessee up 10-3 with 2:58 in the first quarter.
“We really didn’t get into our groove as an offense,” Crompton said. “When you don’t, some doubts come, but the upside is we were in that game at the end. We had four turnovers and we still came up 1 yard short. That is the one positive.”