UCLA: Statistically Tough Defense

The Notre Dame offense certainly looked better in wins over Purdue and Stanford before getting a break for the bye week last Saturday. They ran the ball, something they weren't able to do much of the first four games. The offensive line got a push and quarterback Brady Quinn, as usual, picked the defense a part, and third-down conversions actually started happening.

Lets be honest however, those defenses the Irish handled with relative ease were among the nation's worst. This week, statistically anyways, the 10th-ranked Irish (5-1) are preparing to host a UCLA (4-2) defense that is among the country's best, ranking ninth in total defense (252 yards per game).

"Very solid team," stated Irish tailback Darius Walker. "They are very fast I would say, they are smaller guys at the positions, but they are very quick and fast and that can definitely pose a problem for our offense."

"When you watch them that's kind of the first thing that jumps out at you is there team speed and how they make plays on the ball," receiver Jeff Samardzija said. "That comes a long with aggressiveness I think they bring to the field."

That aggressiveness leads to being able to stop the run and the pass, holding opponents to 84.33 yards rushing per game (14th), while thwarting the air attack to the tune of just 167.7 yards per contest (25th).

Last season, this was one of the worst defenses in the country, but the addition of DeWayne Walker, who left the Washington Redskins after last year, has turned a stagnant unit into an attacking one.

There are two sides of the story.

If the UCLA defense plays like it did in its first five games ND will have its work cut out for them. If the Bruins defense plays like it did last week in a 30-20 loss at No. 16 Oregon, the Irish should have no problems moving the football. The Ducks gained 404 total yards, 256 coming on the ground. That bodes well for Walker, who has gained over 100 yards in ND's last two games.

"The Ducks just came out and played a more physical game than they did," Walker said of UCLA. "They really came out and were focused on what they wanted to do. They wanted to run the ball and continued to run the ball. Their running backs were playing very well, I got a chance to see some of that. They just came out and kind of beat up on them."

Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis will try to do the same, and he's had two weeks to fine tune the game plan.

For the players, this game kind of has the feel to a bowl game or season opener with the extra time they've had to prepare for the Bruins. They are certainly more comfortable.

"I think you can spread it out a little more, it's not so much a cram session as it is you can spread it out and really define what you want to install and really base your schemes around," Samardzija explained. "It really helps the players out a lot, personally to get things set and work on them throughout the week.

"You are a little more confident in what your scheme is and what your system is doing, kind of gives you a little better feel. It allows you to maybe add things that you want to put in or work on, things you have been screwing up in previous games."

Samardzija obviously wouldn't reveal if anything new has been installed.

The extra week has come in handy for the offensive line as they prepare for a quick defensive line that likes to mix things up. Solid at the tackle positions, ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Hickman's seven-and-a-half sacks and Davis ' four combine for almost as many sacks as the whole Notre Dame defense has (13).

What makes them hard to play against is that Hickman and Davis could line up at either end spot on any play.

"You just have to be ready to see both ends," tackle Ryan Harris said. "Both are similar players but both kind of do different things, you just have to be kind of prepared for that and know your assignments.

"It's a little unique, some teams do it. I'm not sure what that means defensively but it's rare to see guys flip-flop, but some of the better teams do that."

Weis said at his Monday press conference he was worried about a bad practice when his guys returned to the field Tuesday. The players reported that they responded well and that there were no incidents.

"Practice was good, it was actually very good," Walker said. "Usually I think coming off of a bye week a team will come out kind of sluggish or rusty so to speak. I definitely thought we came out and worked hard and didn't miss a beat.

"There wasn't a whole lot of yelling or telling people what they needed to do," Walker said of Weis. "He kind of stayed calm the whole practice which was good."

"I think we were more intense than in weeks prior," Harris said. "We have goals we want to accomplish and I think when you break up the season in two parts you get a chance to start over."

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