October 11, 2006

Notebook: UCLA getting a change of attitude

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An arrival brought a revival at UCLA.

The Bruins, who were defensively challenged the last two seasons, are now playing challenging defense under DeWayne Walker.

No offseason move has paid off bigger than UCLA coach Karl Dorrell's hiring of Walker as defensive coordinator.

In 2004 the Bruins ranked 106th nationally in total defense. Last season they were worse, ranking 113th while allowing an average of 468.08 yards per game.

After five games this season, the Bruins (4-1) are allowing an average of just 221.6 yards per game to rank second in the nation.

More importantly, they've given up just 55 points (Washington scored on an interception return against UCLA), which is just three more than they allowed Arizona in an upset loss a year ago. It is also just 11 fewer than was surrendered to USC.

Continuing that level of performance will be critical for the Bruins, who lost quarterback Ben Olson for at least four weeks because of a knee injury sustained in last week's 27-7 victory over Arizona.

When Walker arrived, he realized he inherited players with as much self doubt as talent. Changing that mentality was the top priority for the former Washington Redskins secondary coach.

"The first thing we tried to do as a staff was to come in and change the attitude," he said. "That's not questioning what they were doing before, we just wanted to change to the attitude we wanted as a defensive staff.

"We focused on fundamentals and basic principles of old-school football. We wanted to get these guys to respect the game and understand the integrity of how good defenses play."

They understand.

So far the Bruins are allowing opponents just 1.8 yards per rush. They've grabbed seven interceptions and forced seven fumbles, they're allowing just a 23 percent third-down conversion rate and they've accumulated 17 sacks.

Safeties Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton lead the team with 23 tackles each, but 10 players have recorded at least 11 stops – including middle linebacker Christian Taylor. Even though he is a bit undersized, Taylor has emerged as an emotional leader despite being slowed by a sprained ankle. Defensive end Justin Hickman has posted 5˝ sacks.

"Christian Taylor is about 225 pounds soaking wet, but he's been a ring leader in terms of getting everybody to drink the same juice," Walker said. "We want to be good in the locker room, too, and we want everybody believing in what we're doing. We're not a defense with a bunch of stars – that's not my style of coaching, anyway. Even if I had a bunch of great players I would still teach the same principles of team defense, about not having individuals carrying the defense themselves."

Whatever his style, Walker apparent has taught the Bruins to tackle - which has been a costly shortcoming in recent seasons.

The statistic that he obsesses on is yards after contact. He counted 62 yards after contact in the season-opening victory over Utah. The next week against Rice the number was trimmed to 33.

Walker kept track of that same stat with the Redskins, and when he was with the New York Giants and New England Patriots.

That's quite a résumé, and it begs the question of why he'd leave a successful NFL career to return to the college game. He was the first assistant coach Pete Carroll hired when he took over at Southern Cal.

"It was just the opportunity to be a defensive coordinator, and I'm not getting any younger," the 45-year-old Walker said. "I've been around some real good defensive coordinators and I've learned a lot football and I wanted to put it to the test."

He's acing that test. And if the Bruins defense continues to improve, it will raise questions of how long he will be the defensive coordinator in Westwood.

In the future, teams seeking head coaches might see how Walker fixed UCLA's dilapidated defense and wonder just what else he can fix.

But as is the case with all coaches, Walker isn't looking any farther ahead than next week's game at (4-1) Oregon, which boasts the nation's fourth-ranked offense.

The Ducks are averaging 37 points per game, but at least Walker can go into that game feeling secure that his defense is one of the best in the country.

Well, he could if he would allow himself to do that.

"I'm never going to feel that way," he said. "It's just a flaky game. Once you think you've arrived the ceiling falls in. I don't think I'll think we've become a top defense until we're in the Rose Bowl against Michigan.

"Then, maybe, I'll reflect back and say we did get it done. But now, every week is a grind."

Yeah, but it has also been a grind for the offenses that have faced the Bruins.

UCLA still has to face the most high-powered offenses on its schedule. Aside from Oregon, teams like Notre Dame, California and USC still loom.

A year ago those teams would be expected to put up high scores on the Bruins.

This year, that cannot be taken for granted because of UCLA's defensive revival under Walker.

Three questions with Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee, who directed an 80-yard drive in the final three minutes for a 21-18 victory over Kansas last week.

Do you see that final drive as something that will influence the remainder of the season, or was it just a good thing that happened in one game?

"I think it's a little of both. The fact is we had to rely on each other and it was a complete team effort. I don't think you win a game like that unless everybody on the team is sticking together. If you have cracks in your team they will show in a game like that. That we were able to come back like that is a huge boost for our team, but we have to move past it."

Do you feel that win had any more importance because your team had lost to Texas Tech in the final minute the previous week?

"It was so important for us. We needed to get a Big 12 win under our belts. We were disappointed (in the loss to Texas Tech), but we needed to move on. A win always helps boost morale. Winning always helps, especially on the road (at Kansas). In the Big 12 every win is huge. There are no easy wins, so any time you do get one it's special."

The Aggies are 5-1. Is your team as good as the record says?

"I don't know. That's so hard to say. We have to go through the Big 12 to figure out how good we are. The only way to see how good you are is to go out and do it on the field. We haven't done anything yet. We have some huge games left, and we have a lot of tests to pass before I can answer that question."

Trivia question
Who is Floyd of Rosedale?

Quick hits

  • Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, citing violation of team rules, dismissed five players from the team: freshman linebacker Carl Teague, freshman receiver Todd Dorcelus, junior safety Ricky McCollum, junior defensive end Harold Stanback and sophomore receiver Nollis Dewar. They reportedly purchased beer at a store across from the hotel in which the team stayed on a trip to South Florida.
  • West Virginia dropped from fourth to fifth in the latest Associated Press poll, but was unfazed. "They shouldn't have polls until mid- or late-October anyway," Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Who cares? Worry about it at the end of the year, and let's see where we are." Michigan and Florida moved ahead of West Virginia in the latest poll.
  • Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm, out since tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right (passing) thumb during a Sept. 16 victory over Miami, is throwing in practice again. He could play as soon as Saturday.
  • Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell has received some criticism after throwing two interceptions which were returned for touchdowns in last week's loss to Missouri. However, coach Mike Leach said Harrell will remain the Red Raiders' starter. Harrell leads the Big 12 with 1,901 passing yards and 18 touchdowns.
  • Oklahoma offensive line coach James Patton has indicated he'll consider making lineup changes if penalties remain a problem. The Sooners were penalized 11 times in last week's loss to Texas. Five were on false starts.
  • Michigan State anticipates being without receiver Matt Trannon for this weekend's game against No. 1 Ohio State. Trannon, who has 25 catches for 274 yards this season, sprained an ankle in last week's loss to Michigan.
  • Wisconsin receiver Paul Hubbard, who has 19 catches this season, appeared to suffer a slight concussion in last week's victory over Northwestern. However, the injury isn't expected to keep him out of this week's game against Minnesota.
  • Purdue receiver Selwyn Lymon is questionable for Saturday's game against Northwestern after reportedly suffering an eye injury in a paintball game.
  • Patrick Cowan takes over as UCLA's starting quarterback in place of injured Ben Olson, but last week's effort indicates he can handle it. After Olson was hurt, Cowan came off the bench to pass for 227 yards.
  • USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett has been sidelined with a shoulder injury, but coach Pete Carroll said Jarrett would play Saturday against Arizona State. Linebacker Oscar Lua, who has been out with a leg bruise and sore knee, also is expected to play.
  • Arkansas sophomore running back Darren McFadden has taken over the Southeastern Conference rushing lead after gaining 145 yards in last week's upset of Auburn. McFadden is averaging 110.8 yards per game after five games. That's extra impressive considering he dislocated his big toe in an offseason incident and had to wear a protective boot on his left foot after undergoing surgery to put a stabilizing pin in his toe. The pin was removed on Aug. 21.
  • Vanderbilt remains hopeful that quarterback Chris Nickson will play against Georgia on Saturday. Nickson had completed 11 of 13 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown before suffering a sprained right ankle and deep left thigh bruise in the second quarter of last week's 17-10 loss to Ole Miss.
  • Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox said he'll be 100 percent healthy when the Tigers face No. 2 Florida on Saturday. Cox took a hard hit to his left leg in a 7-3 victory over LSU on Sept. 16 and has played the last three games with his knee and ankle heavily wrapped, which he said has hampered his passing.
  • Florida tailback DeShawn Wynn, the Gators' leading rusher, said his sprained right knee has healed sufficiently and will play Saturday against Auburn. Wynn had enjoyed back-to-back 104-yard rushing outputs before hurting his knee against Alabama two weeks ago. He did not play in last week's win over LSU. However, defensive tackle Javier Estopinan will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
  • Clemson running back Reggie Merriweather, who has missed two games with a sprained ankle, said he expects to play against Temple on Thursday night. Also, reserve defensive tackle Etta Etta-Tawo has been diagnosed with an enlarged heart which caused an irregular heartbeat. The condition leaves his football career in jeopardy.
  • Florida State cornerback Tony Carter, out since injuring a knee against Rice on Sept. 23, won't play this week against Duke. Also, defensive end D.J. Norris remains questionable with a shoulder injury that has forced him to miss the last two games.

    Trivia answer

    Floyd of Rosedale is the prize bronze pig trophy for which Minnesota and Iowa play annually.

    Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.




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