UCLA’s defense is easily its best under coach Chip Kelly



It used to make for a depressing Sunday morning read, UCLA fans reflexively wanting to sink their heads in their cereal bowls.

The weekly update of college football statistics always yielded bad news when it came to the Bruins’ defense in its first two seasons under coach Chip Kelly.

The process involved looking near the bottom of the page to find UCLA listed among the worst teams in the country in almost every major category.

Total defense? Yikes. Passing yardage allowed? Oh boy. Sacks? Never mind.

All of which made the numbers posted one day after the Bruins’ 38-35 loss to No. 11 Oregon on Saturday at Autzen Stadium even more agreeable.

UCLA (1-2) ranked among the top teams in the nation in a few categories. The Bruins were No. 5 nationally with nine tackles for loss per game and No. 19 with 3.33 sacks per game.

It wasn’t just a few pockets of success on an otherwise crummy defense. UCLA ranked No. 36 in rushing yards allowed (135.3 per game) and No. 44 in total defense (374.3 yards per game).

The success comes largely as a result of a new attacking 4-2-5 defense installed upon the arrival of defensive backs coach Brian Norwood from Navy, which ran a similar scheme last season when Norwood was the co-defensive coordinator.

It’s hard to parse how much credit should go to Norwood and how much should go to defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, the architect of awful UCLA defenses in 2018 and 2019, but there is an easy consensus that what the Bruins are doing is working.

Kelly said his team had prioritized speed, allowing defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa and others to be more disruptive than the Bruins had been in recent seasons. Odighizuwa leads the team with five tackles for loss and linebacker Mitchell Agude is second with 4½.

“Part of our plan was to kind of let those guys and the Osas of the world to pin their ears back and let them play and really capitalize on their athleticism,” Kelly said after UCLA piled up a season-high 10 tackles for loss while holding Oregon to 88 yards rushing. “I was really proud of them. And to come up short the way we did, it’s hard, but if they continue to play hard, we’re going to have a shot.”

The defense wasn’t perfect. Oregon found soft pockets in the middle of the field, capitalized on several missed tackles and finished with 422 yards of offense. But the Ducks scored 28 points off UCLA’s four turnovers, including an interception returned for a touchdown and two other scores when the Bruins gave them the ball inside their own 30-yard line.

UCLA’s blitz packages and pre-snap movement continually disrupted the Ducks and showed that the Bruins no longer would be pushovers.

“We’re just operating in a way that everybody plays off each other, and everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Odighizuwa said. “So it makes it a lot easier to play defense, you know?”

Etc.

UCLA running back Demetric Felton Jr. credited his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game to an offensive line that continued to improve. “They played their butts off today and I was super proud of them,” Felton said after finishing with a career-high 167 yards rushing and two touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. “They made it easy for me to get five yards a carry, so I’m just really proud of them.” … Bruins defensive back JonJon Vaughns was ejected for targeting when he lowered his head into Oregon’s Mykael Wright while making a tackle on a kickoff return, but he’ll be allowed to return against Arizona on Saturday because the infraction occurred in the second quarter.

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