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UCLA football’s defensive inconsistencies remain evident following USC loss

Sophomore defensive back Stephan Blaylock (center) leads UCLA football with 78 total and 59 solo tackles, to go along with two pass breakups this season. Blaylock said the Bruin defense didn’t win its individual matchups against USC en route to allowing 52 points. (Daniel Leibowitz/Daily Bruin staff)

By Jason Maikis

Nov. 26, 2019 6:39 p.m.

The Bruins let up seven touchdowns for the second straight weekend in their crosstown clash with the Trojans on Saturday.

UCLA football (4-7, 4-4 Pac-12) allowed 52 points and 643 yards to USC (8-4, 7-2) in a loss that took the Bruins out of bowl contention Saturday. The loss comes a week after Utah recorded 49 points during what would be UCLA’s final chance to reach .500 on the season.

Against the Trojans, it was the secondary that had tough afternoon, allowing over 500 passing yards to quarterback Kedon Slovis. Sophomore defensive back Stephan Blaylock said USC’s offense played better individually than UCLA’s.

“They won their one-on-one matchups,” Blaylock said. “That’s all we can say about it. At the end of the day it falls on the players. We were in the right positions, we just didn’t make the plays we should have.”

The Bruins’ scoring defense has been inconsistent this season, conceding 20 or fewer points to three conference opponents, while also being pinned with more than 40 points against six squads. Entering its last game of the season against California, UCLA’s defense has given up an average of 460.3 yards per game to its opponents – compared to 444.9 yards per game in 2018.

UCLA doesn’t have many upperclassmen in its secondary this season, with no seniors and only three juniors. Blaylock said considering the Bruins’ inexperience, he didn’t want to try to set the bar too high, as he’d rather let the team learn from what they’ve experienced.

“I don’t set expectations because sometimes you don’t exceed them, and sometimes you do,” Blaylock said. “This is a learned lesson, so we’ll grow and learn from what we did this past season.”

Outside of the six senior and redshirt senior linebackers on the defensive squad, this year’s team has a lot more youth involved in the team’s leadership, Blaylock said.

“We’re different (this season) with leadership too,” Blaylock said. “We had a lot of older guys last year that had to step up into their roles, but a lot of the young players have assumed that position this year too, even myself.”

Another group laden with seniors is special teams, with kicker JJ Molson, punter Wade Lees and long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker all in their fourth year of eligibility. Because the Bruins can no longer play for a bowl game, Saturday’s contest against California will be the last time Den Bleyker takes the field donning blue and gold.

He said his last game at the Rose Bowl won’t be easy after playing 47 of UCLA’s 48 games during his time at the program.

“As a specialist I have to keep it calm, cool, collected,” Den Bleyker said. “It’ll definitely be very bittersweet, UCLA has been my home for the past four years. I feel like I’m always going to be a Bruin so … it’s pretty emotional (to think about playing) in my last game.”

The Fremont, California, native recovered a fumble against USC in the past weekend’s game, extending his streak to three straight seasons with a fumble recovery.

Den Bleyker said he will try to pass down his recovery instincts to his successor at long snapper, but warned that his punt coverage downfield as always been an uphill battle.

“I’m like (5-foot-10) on a good day, I like to say I’m 6-foot to get girls,” Den Bleyker said. “It’s exciting because out of the side of my eye I see (redshirt sophomore linebacker Shea Pitts) and (redshirt freshman defensive back Kenny Churchwell III) – who each have at least one inch and about 20 pounds on me – running right next to me, so I feel like the little dog out there.”

Regardless of his stature, the senior said recovering a fumble is special – particularly against the Trojans.

“But getting out and recovering that punt and hitting the returner was wild – especially in the USC game,” Den Bleyker said. “That’s like a dream when you snap awake but are still in bed.”

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Jason Maikis | Alumnus
Maikis joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2018 and contributed until 2019. He was an assistant Sports editor in 2019 and contributed for the football, men's basketball, men's tennis, women's tennis and men's water polo beats.
Maikis joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2018 and contributed until 2019. He was an assistant Sports editor in 2019 and contributed for the football, men's basketball, men's tennis, women's tennis and men's water polo beats.
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