Tennessee: Defense is a Revelation

We thought UCLA's defense was good, but it took that to another level Saturday in a masterful performance that inspired UCLA overcoming Tennessee, 19-15. The young Bruins -- including their young quarterback -- showed incredible poise in getting the win...

UCLA accomplished a big win when they beat Tennessee, 19-15, Saturday.

It signified many things.

First, as we wrote in the preview, it's a big step for UCLA in terms of securing a winning record for the season. If you just play out the schedule and make some logical guesses, and even conservatively concede some losses, the Tennessee win gives UCLA a big boost toward that goal.

Secondly, it showed incredible character for this fairly young team, with a redshirt freshman quarterback playing in his second college game, to come away with a victory in such a hostile environment.

Thirdly, it is a testament to the UCLA coaching staff, to win with a game plan that was clearly conceived to try to minimize the team's weaknesses and potential mistakes. You wouldn't say that Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow had anything close to a wide open game plan. Heck, UCLA didn't throw the ball down the field once. They didn't even risk pitching the ball. UCLA's approach was to eliminate turnovers, try to get enough yards on the ground and through short, safe throws, to put up a smattering of points, and then allow UCLA's defense to win the game. It's not exactly an aggressive, brash game plan, but these are smart experienced coaches who scout themselves well, know their team's limitations and realize what it would take to win in such a situation as playing against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.

Heck if it didn't work.

UCLA got 10 points as a result of Tennessee turnovers created by UCLA's defense. It also probably kept Tennessee from at least a couple of other scores by creating turnovers.

Now, you can say that Tennessee did a bit of handing UCLA the game. During just about the entire second quarter and for a few seconds in the third quarter, Tennessee had four possessions that were fumble, interception, interception and interception.

But while you can attribute it to the Tennessee quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, not being very good (which many Volunteer fans surely are at this moment), you have to also give the UCLA defense credit for the turnovers.

And you have to give the defense credit for, well, pretty much winning the game.

There were plenty of Tennessee possessions where it didn't end in a turnover, and UCLA simply shut them down. After the 10 points Tennessee scored in the first quarter, and then the fumble-interception-interception-interception, Tennessee the rest of the way had two three-and-outs, one drive for a field goal, were held at the UCLA goal line for four downs, and then had another 4-and-out.

You could even make a valid excuse for the first initial 10 points, which only came after a UCLA penalty kept a Tennessee drive alive and the Prince fumble.

That's a pretty impressive defensive resume.

You know it's a masterful coaching job and defensive gem when you win a game on the road against an SEC team, in front of 100,000 people, with a freshman quarterback – and you only gain 186 yards.

That's right. UCLA gained a total of 186 yards.

Give Prince credit. He did what the UCLA coaches wanted him to do: Not lose the game. Zero interceptions. Just one turnover, on a fumble. He did it all while he was hit many times (including the hit on the safety that made for a bloody lip), sacked twice and generally didn't have a lot of time to make decisions. He also showed some exceptional awareness and composure on a number of plays, namely the touchdown pass to Chane Moline where Prince had two Vols in his face but got the pass off on a bootleg.

Also, among the tailbacks, Johnathan Franklin looked good finding yardage, and Milton Knox might have had the offensive play of the game. In the second quarter, during a key drive that led to the UCLA touchdown, Knox caught a screen pass and was a good five yards from the first-down marker with one tackler to beat. Knox juked him out of his shoes and made the first down.

But again, how about that defense?

It held Tennessee to 208 yards, 115 rushing and 93 yards passing -- a team that gained 657 yards and 380 rushing last week. Yeah, it was against Western Kentucky, but the one thing we thought we could actually take from the Volunteers' performance against WKU was that they were going to have a good running game. They averaged just 2.6 yards per rush. Their bull of a tailback, Montario Hardesty, gained 89 yards and averaged 3.4 per carry.

We said before the game that whoever won the battle between Tennessee's running game and UCLA's rushing defense would probably win the game. UCLA won the battle, and won the game.

But the UCLA passing defense was also superb. Crompton was 13 of 26 for 93 yards, with three interceptions. His longest completion from scrimmage was 26 yards, which occurred when a UCLA defensive back fell down. Tennessee receivers were blanketed, and couldn't get behind UCLA's coverage.

Reggie Carter, UCLA's senior middle linebacker, looked like a pro playing amongst college players. He finished with 14 tackles, and was seemingly in on every play. On the third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal, he made the tackles.

Rahim Moore is the ball-hawkin' Bruin, getting two more picks to go along with the three he had against San Diego State last week.

Alterraun Verner had an interception, in typical Verner style, jumping a route with that burst of quickness he has, and he was very effective against the run.

Courtney Viney, all 5-8 of him, had a very good game at the other corner spot, generally providing good coverage and run support.

Tony Dye, starting just his second game at free safety, was very active, blowing up running plays and being very solid in coverage.

Brian Price, in this game, looked like he had a bigger impact on the game from play to play. He had two great sacks, one where he jumped past his blocker with an amazing bit of quickness.

If you had to give an award to the best second-string defensive player for the day it would have to go to defensive tackle David Carter. Carter looks to be a potential impact player, showing very good lateral quickness and strength, shedding blockers and making tackles. He was the guy who held the line on the fourth-and-goal to enable Reggie Carter to make the tackle.

Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough put in a very effective game plan, and called a very good and creative game. UCLA blitzed far more against Tennessee than it did against San Diego State, and far more imaginatively. Blitzes came from different parts of the field, from different positions. A big element to UCLA shutting down Tennessee's offense was, after Crompton had thrown the three interceptions, Bullough went after him. You would think Tennessee would go to the ground, since Crompton was throwing the game away, and instead of sitting back, Bullough got aggressive and run blitzed. It was key to Tennessee going three-and-out on its next two possessions.

There are surely some UCLA fans out there who weren't pleased with the play-calling. It was a very conservative game plan, with very few running plays going outside the tackles, and very few throws going beyond 10 yards or in between the hashes. But what the critical UCLA fans aren't getting is that the game plan isn't a result of short-sightedness by the UCLA coaches, but vision. Or self-awareness, more accurately. The coaches quite soberly realized what UCLA had on offense, and what it could do, and what it would take offensively to win this game. Last year, they attempted the same approach, but with a game plan that only intended to minimize mistakes and turnovers, last season's offense couldn't pull it off. This year, at least, in this game, it did. Also, the play-calling in this game changed in a couple of ways. In terms of the running game, UCLA ran tackle-to-tackle for most of the first half, and that set up some of the off-tackle runs in the second half that were key in sustaining some drives and retaining the ball. Also, early on, with Tennessee blitzing and pressuring Prince on just about every play, UCLA wasn't utilizing any screens to offset the pressure. In the second half, it did, to relative effectiveness.

It will be interesting to see, as the season progresses, if the coaches attempt more offensively, as Prince settles in more and the offensive line grows and matures. You can see maturity from the first to the second game, especially in Prince. Heck, you could see development in this game between the first and second halves; the UCLA offensive line was far more effective in pass protection as the game wore on.

There were some things – well, calls -- in this game that took your breath away, in a negative way. The offside call on what would have been Rahim Moore's third interception and the game sealer was a mystery. The hit on Prince in the endzone for the safety looked to clearly be helmet to helmet. But the Bruins don't get the calls in SEC Land.

An aside: Is it me, or has the officiating around college football been particularly poor in the season's first two weeks? Yes, every season there are plenty of outrageously bad calls, but the bad calls seem pervasive now throughout all of the college games I've watched. And not just bad calls, but mysterious calls. Not just poor judgment but the kind of calls where you say to yourself, "I don't understand how they got that call from that."

UCLA kicker Kai Forbath, being such a weapon, changes the game for UCLA, and provides an immense relief for UCLA's fledgling offense. There's a considerable difference when you know you can get a near-automatic three points after just barely getting into an opponent's territory. He made four of five field goals, accounting for 12 points, which is as good as two touchdowns.

But it all comes down to Reggie Carter and his boys on defense. We thought they'd be pretty good in fall camp, but this was taking "pretty good" to another level. Their performance had everything – the athletic interceptions, the sacks, the tackles for loss, and the amazing, immortal goal-line stand. Carter and his comrades have said that they wanted to be one of the best defenses in the country this season; after that performance Saturday, they probably already are among that lofty elite. And with a defense this good, providing time and opportunity for a young but talented offense to develop, the 2009 season might be one of those revelations of a season.

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