On 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 that?"
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 by itself.
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. I le 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 the favor."
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 Inn has given his defenders the given 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 snapped."