Solid UCLA defense overshadowed by offensive issues
LOS ANGELES (AP) All the attention on quarterback Josh Rosen's health and UCLA's struggles to run have overshadowed what the Bruins have accomplished on defense.
Coach Jim Mora expects that to change this week against No. 19 Utah.
''It's going to be a heck of a defensive battle I hope,'' Mora said. ''That's what I foresee because we're playing pretty well on defense too.''
Rosen seems to be on track to return after missing the 27-21 loss at Washington State with undisclosed injuries, participating in the open portion of practice Wednesday, but Mora does not expect a decision regarding the sophomore's availability to be made before Saturday.
''As much as you want to know, I promise you I want to know,'' Mora said. ''I promise you our team wants to know. We're just like you, hoping and crossing our fingers he is able to go on Saturday.''
Instead of focusing on Rosen's status, Mora has spent the week directing his team to successfully close out games. All four of UCLA's losses this season were decided on the final possession, and have won only one of its last five conference games under such circumstances. The lone victory came against the Utes last season, a 17-9 decision in Salt Lake City.
''Good teams finish, and you have to create that environment in practice and we try to do that all the time but this week we have put an added emphasis on it,'' Mora said. ''Really you get what you emphasize. Hopefully it pays off.''
Those lessons seem to have paid off on defense. Though UCLA ranks in the middle of the Pac-12 in most categories on a per-game basis, their per-play averages hint at an excellent unit that is not getting much help from the offense. Allowing 4.63 yards per play, UCLA trails only Washington and Colorado among conference members and ranks No. 16 nationally. However, the 521 snaps the defense has faced is 116th out of the 128 FBS teams. The pass defense is best in the Pac-12, allowing just 5.2 yards per attempt.
Linebacker Jayon Brown leads the conference in tackles, defensive end Takkarist McKinley ranks second in tackles for loss, and defensive backs Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth are in the top six in passes defended.
The secondary limited quarterback Luke Falk to 261 yards passing and the Cougars' FBS-best streak of 41 consecutive games with a touchdown pass came to an end.
''We always bill ourselves on being underrated and under-appreciate so we kind of feed off that type of thing, and that's ok by us as long as we keep playing good and put our team into position to win,'' defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin said. ''Once it starts transferring into wins we'll ask for a little bit of love.''
If the ground game can provide any respite for the defense, Mora believes UCLA can salvage its season. That will be a difficult assignment against an always-stout Utah defense.
''If we can have some success against them, then I think that shows we are taking progress in that area, which is the one area of our football team that has held us back,'' Mora said.