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Bruins defense continues to disappoint

It's time to forget everything you thought you knew about UCLA's defense.

Forget the two-deep talent among the front seven, the tons of experience and talent throughout the defense and the freakish athleticism expected to star on game day.

These guys are not who we thought they were.

Through three games so far this season, UCLA's defense ranks 108th in the nation in rushing defense (215 yards per game), 100th in total defense (424.67 yards per game), 103rd in scoring defense (34.67 points per game) and 111th in tackles for a loss (3.33 per game).

Those are nightmarish numbers for a unit that came into the season as the supposed strength of UCLA, with players such as defensive end Datone Jones, interior lineman Cassius Marsh, middle linebacker Patrick Larimore and safety Dietrich Riley poised for breakout seasons.

The Bruins' defense has had multiple problems with schemes, the inability to contain ball carries around the edges and blown pass coverages, but the biggest problem of all has been tackling. UCLA defenders are simply unable to finish off ball carriers even when they are in position to make plays. It's as if they are playing two-hand touch, giving up far more yards after contact than any major division college should.

What should be two-yard losses turn into six yard gains. What should be three-yard gains turn into first downs. And the most troubling part if it all is that nobody seems to know why the Bruins have gone so soft.

"We’ve got a new coach as the defensive coordinator and we’re trying to find our footing," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "I had hoped it would go better early, it obviously has not so we’re going to go back to work and find out exactly what is missing to keep us from being a stout run defense because we have got to play better that we have."

The inability to tackle can easily be traced to bad luck with injuries during Neuheisel's first three years as UCLA coach. He lost two quarterbacks during camp of his first season and lost Jones and center Kai Maiava in camp last season.

Understandably gun shy, Neuheisel limited the amount of live tackling in practice. The Bruins simply don't do it and they haven't, save for the scrimmages, since the beginning of training camp. Players are taught to fit the tackle, grab and let go.

It's worked as the Bruins are as injury free as they have been at this point in the season during Neuheisel's tenure, but it's also had a carry-over effect: the Bruins appear to be playing exactly how they practice.

"All we need to do is tackle," Marsh said. "Tackling is the key to success on defense and that’s just something we need to do. If we made every tackle that we attempted, if we make the first tackle, we would have won a lot of these games we’re losing. The coaches know that, the players know that and I hope this week we address that."

Joe Tresey, the defensive coordinator, acknowledged that tackling has been an issue, but also appears gun shy about live tackling drills. Asked if he would do more of it in practice this week, he balked, saying it would be too risky as the Bruins prepare to open Pac-12 play at Oregon State next week.

"It’s to the point now where you can’t just have a waylay and have full-out tackle drills and the whole deal and you end up going to Corvallis with four starters hurt," Tresey said.

The defensive issue may run deeper than just tackling. The team called a players-only meeting last week, a sign that there may be some chemistry or other internal issues. But Tresey said that wasn't a problem. He said his players have continued to fight even when things have gone awry. They gave up season highs of 284 yards rushing, 488 total yards and points in their 49-20 loss to Texas, yet never gave up on each other.

"It was ugly, but you know what? They kept fighting," Tresey said. "I saw it in their eyes, nobody was going in the tank. You’ve got to go with them. That’s all you’ve got. I believe in them. I really do. Come hell or high water, I’m convinced we are going to be a very good defense."

And Tresey knows that makes him sound like a mad man based on what we have seen out of the defense so far, but he insists that the defense we have seen so far is not who we think they are.

"Our back's against the wall and you know, we have faith in these guys," Tresey said. "And you know what, I may be the laughing stock of L.A., but you know what? I don’t care. These kids, they’re going to fight. They’re going to fight and we know it."