Bruins' defense is leading the charge to improvement
The fun bunch was back.
Safety Elisha Guidry gripped the ball tightly in delight after defensive lineman Odua Isibor forced a fumble on the game’s fourth play.
Safety Stephan Blaylock turned his sideline into a joyous mass of bouncing bodies with an early third-down stop.
Cornerback Darnay Holmes leaped into the air in the fourth quarter, bumping bodies with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to commemorate a fourth-down stand.
There was plenty to celebrate Saturday night at the Rose Bowl after UCLA’s once-beleaguered defense delivered a second consecutive strong performance, even if this was one instance in which the numbers appeared to indicate otherwise.
UCLA’s defense dominated during a 42-32 victory over No. 24 Arizona State despite giving up four touchdowns and 383 yards of offense. The necessary disclaimer: Three of those touchdowns came after the Bruins had built a commanding 42-10 lead and the bulk of those yards were of the meaningless variety.
All that really matters is that this defense bears no resemblance to the one that was among the worst in the country through the season’s first 1 1/2 months.
“Coach says at this point in the season, you either get better or worse,” defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa said, referring to Chip Kelly. “I feel like we’re on the rise so we just have to keep it going.”
Odighizuwa logged the Bruins’ only sack one game after they had recorded a season-high seven sacks against Stanford, but they were equally disruptive against the Sun Devils.
Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin, one of the top rushers in the Pac-12 Conference, managed just 46 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Quarterback Jayden Daniels never found a rhythm until his team trailed by 32 points. The Sun Devils were stuffed on both of their fourth-down attempts.
“They step up to the challenge,” UCLA running back Joshua Kelley said of a defense that had long been the Bruins’ lesser half. “They make sure to cause turnovers, get three-and-outs.”
Isibor’s forced fumble in the first quarter led to the first of Kelley’s career-high four rushing touchdowns and served notice that the defensive effort UCLA had unveiled against Stanford, when it held the Cardinal to 198 yards, was not a one-week wonder.
The Bruins’ offense didn’t do its defense any favors, turning the ball over three times on fumbles. One of the fumbles came at UCLA’s four-yard line and another at its 36. Arizona State scored touchdowns off all three turnovers.
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“We put the defense in some difficult situations,” Kelly said. “I thought they responded to those. Really, what we talk about is when you face challenges and adversity, how do you approach them? Is it, ‘Oh God, here we go again.’ Or is it, ‘All right, let’s go.’ I think that’s the way our defense is starting to play. It’s starting to round into form.”
Odighizuwa pinned the defensive improvement on a more aggressive approach in which the Bruins were “just a little bit more vertical” in attacking the offense. But he acknowledged some necessary improvement before UCLA (3-5 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) can have more fun next weekend against Colorado (3-5, 1-4) at the Rose Bowl.
“We started fast,” Odighizuwa said, “we just got to close out a little stronger.”
Demetric Felton Jr.’s two catches gave him 36 for the season, matching George Farmer’s school record for catches in a season by a running back. Farmer set the record in 1969. … Receiver Kyle Philips has caught a touchdown pass in three consecutive games, becoming the first Bruin to do so since Jordan Lasley compiled a four-game streak in 2017. … UCLA scored a touchdown on its opening drive for the fifth time in eight games this season.