Despite injuries, coordinator Tom Bradley builds good UCLA defense

When defense-minded UCLA coach Jim Mora is asked about his schematic bonding with his first-year defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who spent his first 46 years in college football at Penn State, he speaks of fun and flexibility.

It's fun for Mora to debate and discuss the intricacies of scheme, but players come first. You adapt your ideas to the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel.

"It's important that you don't get so inflexible that you don't adjust your scheme to your players," Mora said.

Mora and Bradley surely had some great schematic ideas in August. They had the best defensive line tandem in the Pac-12 in Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark. They had a budding All-American linebacker in Myles Jack. And they had a lockdown corner in Fabian Moreau.

Then -- wham! -- Vanderdoes, Jack and Moreau are lost to season-ending injuries before the season moves out of September. That's a subtraction of three almost certain first-team All-Pac-12 players. Obviously, time for some flexibility.

Not that Bradley is going to give you his sob story. He pretty much changes the subject when asked about what he lost when each of those three went down.

"I look in the mirror, not the window," he said.

While Bradley mostly scoffs at statistics, he might want to turn away from the window -- studying soul-quashing Westwood traffic? -- and look at the computer screen. We've got some attaboy numbers for him.

  • UCLA ranks third in the Pac-12 in yards per play.

  • UCLA ranks first in pass-efficiency defense.

  • UCLA ranks third in third-down percentage defense.

  • UCLA ranks third in red-zone touchdown percentage.

  • UCLA has allowed the fewest plays of 10-plus and 20-plus yards in the conference.

Obviously points allowed is the primary measure of a defense, and the Bruins' 24.6 points per game ranks only fifth in the Pac-12. But it's clear Bradley has whittled together a pretty good defense in his first season despite horrible personnel losses, which is not limited to the high-profile troika noted above.

The notable weaknesses have been run defense. The 4.5 yards per carry the Bruins are surrendering ranks eighth in the conference. UCLA also has only 18 sacks, which ranks 10th.

The run defense shouldn't be a huge issue Saturday against Washington State, as the Cougars own the fewest rushing attempts in the Pac-12 and average the fewest yards per carry at 3.5. The sack numbers should be somewhat a concern because no team throws more than the Cougars, who have given up 29 sacks, most in the conference, though that's on 512 attempts, which is 140 more throws than any other team.

Still, when you match the most efficient pass defense in the conference, particularly one that is good in the red zone, against an offense that throws for more yards than anyone else in the country, you get an interesting matchup. It's also probably a must-win for UCLA if it wants to stay in the South Division hunt.

One of the questions when Mora and Bradley hooked up after former coordinator Jeff Ulbrich bolted for the Atlanta Falcons was base scheme. The Bruins had been running a 3-4 under Mora and Bradley was a 4-3 guy. To Mora, however, it wasn't much of an issue.

"We really are a 4-3 team," Mora said. "I don't think people really understand that. We say we are a 3-4 team but honestly, if you look at us and evaluate us, we're a 4-3 team."

Perhaps. But the Bruins have opened with a 3-3-5 the past three games -- base nickel -- in large part because of injuries at linebacker and the style of offenses they've faced. Last weekend at Oregon State, the Bruins pitched a shutout in a 41-0 win.

They won't shut out Washington State. The goal is to make quarterback Luke Falk uncomfortable, lower his completion percentage below 60 percent and force him into a few poor throws, which is what Stanford did in a tight win two weeks ago. The Cardinal still surrendered 30 points, 10 more than their season average.

Bradley's pedigree before he arrived at UCLA was outstanding. Between 2004 and '09, the Nittany Lions never finished lower than 10th nationally in scoring defense. Last year at West Virginia, his defense improved by nearly six points allowed per game (33.3 ppg to 27.6).

Despite the injuries, the Bruins are 3.5 points better than a year ago, though the Cougars and the season finale at USC could stress that statistical improvement.

Bradley doesn't like to talk about the injuries, but he can laugh about them. He sees the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Vanderdoes watching practice and he makes sure the junior knows he's missed.

Said Bradley, "I tease him everyday -- 'I moved 2,451 miles and I get to coach you for one quarter!' "