Oct. 6, 2001
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES - Linebacker Robert Thomas remembers the low points - and there were many - as a member of the UCLA defense in the last three seasons.
Even when the Bruins were highly successful in 1998, coming within one win of playing for the national championship, their defense was terrible at the most critical of times. Things didn't get any better in 1999 or 2000, when UCLA went a combined 10-13.
Now, it's a different story under first-year defensive coordinator Phil Snow, and Thomas swears he expected it.
"We knew we were going to come in this year with a new attitude, prove we are one of the best defenses in the country," the 6-foot-2, 237-pound senior said.
With Thomas leading the way, that's precisely the situation through four games as the usually offensive-happy Bruins are getting it done on the other side of the ball.
A leading candidate for the Butkus Award, which goes to the country's top linebacker, Thomas already has been involved in 39 tackles, 13 for losses - nine shy of the school record.
"I attack the target," Thomas said. "That's my job - attack and make plays in the backfield, that's what linebacker play is all about. I give the defensive line all the credit in the world, the better they are, the better I am."
The Bruins, who allowed more than 29 points per game from 1998-2000, used nine starters on the defensive line last season due to injuries.
"I thought if we got off to a good start and we got a little confidence, we could be pretty good if we stayed healthy," said Snow, UCLA's fourth defensive coordinator in the last five years.
That was a big problem last year, when 11 members of the defense were injured, and UCLA allowed a school-record 368 points (30.7-point average) in 12 games.
So far this year, No. 9 UCLA (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) has given up 47 points (11.8-point average) to rank eighth nationally in scoring defense.
Alabama gained 458 yards in losing to UCLA 20-17 in the season-opener, the Bruins allowed only 628 yards in their last three games and now rank 14th in total defense, having given up 271.5 yards per game.
"I think our confidence level is rising with every play, every quarter, every game," senior safety Marques Anderson said. "And our defense hasn't put it together, I feel like we have so much more.
"We've got a lot of senior leadership, we're able to do what coach Snow wants. We're not going to have to go through what we went through anymore, the ridicule."
Anderson said he's learned more about playing defense since Snow arrived than he had previously at UCLA.
"I'm not just relying on my athletic ability to make plays," Anderson said. "Coach Snow is a very wise coach, a coach who really knows the game, who knows how to teach us the game."
The 45-year-old Snow, who came to UCLA after spending nine years as an assistant at Arizona State - the last seven as defensive coordinator - has spent considerable time teaching his players offense, as surprising as that might sound.
"I think that's really helped them," he said. "They can recognize things by formation. The better you understand offense, the better you can play defense."
UCLA's school-record 20-game winning streak ended at Miami in its final regular-season game in 1998 when they lost 49-45 as the Edgerrin James-led Hurricanes rolled up 689 yards of total offense.
A victory and the Bruins would have played for the national championship.
Bob Toledo said that game was the only time there has been open friction between the offense and defense in his eight years at UCLA - two as offensive coordinator, the last six as head coach.
Toledo said his team's defense is as good as any he's been around in his coaching career, which spans nearly 30 years, although he realizes there's a lot of football left.
"If we had this defense around the last couple of years, we would have had a different record," he said. "We're physical, we're athletic, we've got quality depth."
Idle this weekend, the Bruins return to action Oct. 13 at the Rose Bowl against No. 11 Washington - a winner of 11 in a row entering Saturday's home game against Southern California.