0n the field at the Rose Bowl, UCLA defensive tackle Ken Kocher
sought out his nemesis. "There's my man!" he said, espying Ohio
State center LeCharles Bentley, with whom he'd spent the
afternoon trading blows and helmet paint. The sweaty brutes
shook hands and headed for their respective tunnels. As he
walked, Kocher shouted to no one in particular, "Do you hear
It could be heard in San Bernardino. With the same gusto Bruins
fans had brought to chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" before the
singing of the national anthem last Saturday, they were now
chanting, "DEE-fense! DEE-fense!" This was news. How to put it
tactfully? For two seasons UCLA's defense has sucked. In 1999 it
gave up 4,836 yards, the most in school history. Last year it
allowed 368 points, the most in Bruins history. In the off-season
coach Bob Toledo hired his third defensive coordinator in four
years. With those numbers as a backdrop, UCLA's 13-6 defeat of
the Buckeyes seems all the more remarkable. That's because for
the first time in anyone's memory, the Bruins' defense won a game
In pitching this virtual shutout--Ohio State's sole touchdown came
off a blocked punt--the UCLA defense faced two obstacles. The
first was the Buckeyes' offense, which at times was comically
inept. Ohio State senior quarterback Steve Bellisari went from
the middle of the first quarter to the middle of the fourth
without completing a pass. Working behind an inexperienced line
and throwing to inexperienced receivers, he connected on five of
23 passes for 45 yards with two interceptions.
The more formidable obstacle for the Bruins' defensive players
was...the Bruins' offensive players. Security guards patting
down arriving spectators before the game displayed better hands
than the UCLA offense, which had seven fumbles and lost four of
them. Senior tailback DeShaun Foster, who came into the game
having lost three fumbles in his college career, put the ball on
the ground four times, with Ohio State recovering twice. "If we
had lost," said the despondent Foster, sitting at his stall 45
minutes after the game, "I might still be out on the field,
digging a hole."
Having rushed for 299 yards in earlier wins over Alabama and
Kansas, Foster appeared to be headed for his third straight
100-plus-yard game. He piled up 66 yards on 19 first-half
carries, including one highlight-reel, 16-yard gallop off a
direct snap that called to mind the Heisman Trophy, which, by the
end of the game, seemed to have receded from his grasp. He
finished with 66 yards on 29 carries.
Foster's defensive teammates were only too happy to pick him up.
"The offense has bailed us out many times the last two years,"
said middle linebacker Robert Thomas. "It was our turn to return
Thomas returned it repeatedly, with a team-leading nine tackles
(five for losses). No UCLA player has been more galled by the
Bruins' defensive ineptitude in recent seasons than Thomas, who
came out of Imperial (Calif.) High in 1998 having been dubbed by
a preponderance of scouting services as the nation's top
schoolboy linebacker. He had eight tackles as a true freshman
against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. He started as a sophomore in
1999--a season marred by a 4-7 record and the two-game suspension
he served for his role in a scandal involving the use by 11 UCLA
players of illegally obtained handicapped-parking placards. Last
year Thomas led the Bruins in tackles, with 88, despite hobbling
through the second half of the season with a stress fracture in
his left foot. The foot would be so swollen after games that he
says it took him four or five days to recover. "It affected me a
lot, mentally and physically," he says.
While most Bruins spent the summer working out on campus, Thomas
was in San Diego, honing his strength and explosiveness with
trainer Doug Hix, who has worked with Junior Seau, among other
NFL players. In the process the 6'1" Thomas says he dropped 10
pounds of baby fat. He now weighs 231.
Thomas has been the player most affected by the arrival of
defensive coordinator Phil Snow, whom Toledo hired from Arizona
State to replace the fired Bob Field, whom Toledo had promoted
two years ago to replace Nick Aliotti. So far, so good for the
new guy. Snow kept Fields's 4-3 scheme but has given his
defenders the green light to play it more aggressively,
emphasizing getting upfield quickly and containing an area. He's
all but scrapped the nickel package, enabling his best
player--Thomas--to stay on the field in passing situations.
Snow has insisted that Thomas and the rest of the Bruins'
defenders improve their ability to recognize backfield sets and
offensive formations. "You can't defend every possibility," Snow
says. "You have to narrow the choices down before the ball's
UCLA also started last year 3-0, only to lose five of its last
seven games. The defense will get a reality check on the road
this Saturday against 19th-ranked Oregon State, whose offense
will spread out the Bruins more than any team they have faced. If
UCLA survives this test, it will have a solid shot at finishing
atop the Pac-10 for the first time since 1998. Last year 15
players were lost to injuries for a significant part of the
season, 11 on defense, seven along the defensive line. Sitting in
his office on the Wednesday before the Ohio State game, Toledo
recalled those difficult days. "We couldn't even practice against
our first defense," he said. "We didn't have enough good bodies."
Toledo then grinned and reported the upside: "Eight guys started
on the defensive line last year, and we've got them all back." A
glaring weakness has become a pronounced strength. Rotating eight
linemen, UCLA kept constant pressure on Bellisari while limiting
the Buckeyes to 121 rushing yards.
The most talented of the octet is 6'6", 276-pound senior end
Kenyon Coleman, whose stature in the dressing room grew after the
events of Sept. 11. At a team meeting that day, Coleman addressed
his teammates, citing Scripture and reducing many of them to
tears. "Humble yourself," he said. "I am like you, I love playing
football, I will have a career playing football. But this is
bigger than yourself and bigger than football." It was, according
to witnesses, a galvanizing moment.
How did it feel, taking the field 11 days after the terrorist
attacks? Said Coleman, "Once we got out there and sang The
Star-Spangled Banner, once we paid tribute"--the crowd of 73,723
observed a moment of silence--"it became business."
Toweling off nearby and smirking at Coleman's occasional
malapropism ("We can improve; we're just chipping the iceberg of
this defense") was his fellow businessman, Kocher, the defensive
tackle. He could not resist pointing out that Coleman's
considerable athletic skills don't include competence in duck
hunting. "My father and I took him last year," says Kocher, and
not only did Coleman bag no ducks, but "he was asleep in the
truck by 10 in the morning."
While Coleman missed all but three games last fall after tearing
cartilage in his left knee, Kocher was nagged by knee and ankle
sprains. This season, for as long as they stay healthy, Coleman,
Kocher, Thomas and Co. should be turning football fields into
their own happy hunting grounds.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Buckeye stops here Kocher (arm around ballcarrier), Marques Anderson (7) and Co. halted Jonathan Wells.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Catch as catch can Among Ryan Smith's game-high four receptions was this 24-yarder for the Bruins' lone touchdown.
The foot would be so swollen after games that Thomas says it
took him four or five days to recover.