Penalty prevention a priority for UCLA during bye week

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Penalties have always been a problem for UCLA during Jim Mora’s tenure.

The Bruins finished last season 86th among FBS teams in penalties per game and 91st in penalty yards per game, the best results so far for a program that has routinely been in the bottom 10 nationally in Mora’s six seasons as head coach.

UCLA is back at 125th out of 130 teams in both categories this season, but there are some penalties that really bug Mora more than others. Defensive holding and targeting calls, which have accounted for eight of the 26 penalties against the defense this season, are definitely on that list, and they’re receiving special attention during UCLA’s bye week.

Tackling and scramble drills were part of the practice schedule Tuesday, with the latter intended to cut down on holding calls after the Bruins committed three of them in the 27-23 win over Colorado last Saturday.

UCLA applied plenty of pressure on Buffaloes quarterback Steven Montez but too often allowed him to break the pocket and either scramble for positive yardage or complete passes down the field. The secondary, which spent much of the game without starting corners Darnay Holmes and Nate Meadors, ended up grabbing receivers when Montez would improvise.

“You’re covering one route and the receiver breaks that route and he either takes off down the field or comes back to the quarterback, so it’s extremely hard,” safety Adarius Pickett said. “It’s just something you got to work on, and Coach Mora did a good job of addressing that.”

With many more mobile quarterbacks on the schedule, including Arizona redshirt junior Brandon Dawkins in UCLA’s next game, Pickett recognizes the need to address the issue. Mora needs his defensive backs to do “what we call plaster, how you attach yourself to receivers when the play breaks down on offense,” he said.

Those adjustments also extend to the defensive line doing a better job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket even when they are rushing the passer, so Mora brought in wide receiver Damian Alloway to help reinforce those traits.

“You put a guy like Damian back there at the quarterback position, have him scramble around, and you’re teaching guys how to work off of blocks,” Mora said. “It was good to be able to just really go back and emphasize fundamentals on a day like today.”

Tackling was the other focus, intended to break a streak of four straight games in which a UCLA defender has been ejected for targeting. Pickett, who was penalized against Stanford, said the emphasis was to try to get away from delivering hits above the shoulders.

“We call it hitting the strike zone,” Pickett said. “Baseball, they have the chest to about the knees is the strike zone, so that’s primarily what we were working on today. Lowering our target level, hitting in that section particularly.”

Pickett believes he did just that in his hit on Cardinal tight end Dalton Schultz that resulted in his ejection, and the redshirt junior would like to see more latitude written into the rule to account for intent.

“On that particular play, the guy is 6-6. He lowers his head and he hits my head. I’m aiming, as you can see, for his midsection and I get kicked out of the game for that. I just, I don’t understand that at all,” Pickett said. “I feel like that rule needs to be reviewed. In basketball, there’s a flagrant 1, flagrant 2. I feel like there needs to be different levels of a targeting foul because if there’s non-intentional … You clearly see that I’m not trying to launch myself at somebody’s head or something like that.”

NOTES: Defensive end Jaelan Phillips (ankle) is on track to return against the Wildcats, Mora said. The freshman still leads the team with 4.5 tackles for loss despite missing the last two games against Stanford and Colorado.


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