June 23, 2024

Last February, UCLA quietly offered $1 million to lure D’Anton Lynn from the Baltimore Ravens to become its defensive coordinator.

Six weeks into the 2023 season, it is clear that athletic director Martin Jarmond actually found himself a bargain. Lynn is worth double that — the same amount that Ohio State’s Jim Knowles, the country’s highest paid defensive coordinator, brings in.

After just eight months directing what has routinely been one of the country’s most dysfunctional units, Lynn has transformed UCLA into one of the top defenses in the country. His miracle work thus far mirrors the immediate transformation Lincoln Riley executed for USC’s offense last season — only Lynn didn’t bring with him the defensive equivalent of a projected No. 1 overall NFL draft pick and the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner from the transfer portal.

USC fans, frustrated with a second year of the Grinch Who Stole Defense, can now only dream of a scenario in which Riley had ditched Alex Grinch and brought in fresh leadership for his defense. More on that later.

UCLA entered Saturday’s game against No. 13 Washington State at the Rose Bowl ranked No. 6 nationally in scoring defense and No. 8 in total defense. In their disappointing loss at Utah, the Bruins flashed a level of defensive competency that they hadn’t shown during the previous five seasons under Chip Kelly, but their performance came with an asterisk due to the fact the Utes were playing a backup quarterback, not veteran Cam Rising.

After that game, as disappointing as it was for UCLA, I saw the potential for Kelly’s program to break through — if it indeed finally had a defense.

Washington State was the perfect next opponent. The unbeaten Cougars entered Saturday No. 2 in the country in passing offense at 405.8 yards per game behind quarterback Cameron Ward. They’re also the most rightfully angry team in the country, scorned by the conference realignment wave that ripped apart the Pac-12 and left Pullman’s proud program homeless. Think they didn’t want to pillage Pasadena as a parting gift?

Instead, Ward was the one looking for safe haven all afternoon. His pocket was under constant assault from UCLA’s front four. The Bruins didn’t have to blitz to create havoc around Ward and therefore had the bodies to create blanket coverage in the secondary.

Coach Chip Kelly runs with UCLA players.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly runs with his players before a 25-17 upset win over No. 13 Washington State at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

I honestly couldn’t believe what I was watching Saturday. I couldn’t believe it against Utah either, but this was against an explosive offense. Washington State finished with 216 total yards. Ward, who hadn’t thrown an interception yet this season, tossed two to the Bruins.

The saying goes that good defense travels. This UCLA defense will travel. It will travel next week to Corvallis for a massive game against No. 15 Oregon State. It will travel across town to the Coliseum Nov. 18. And it will travel to burgs across the Big Ten next year.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti was at the Rose Bowl Saturday, getting a look at one of his league’s future members. UCLA looked like a viable competitor, not just the chosen crosstown tag-along for USC.

Did you happen to see the Bruins’ 2024 schedule, released earlier this week? They play at Louisiana State, Penn State, Nebraska and Washington. They host USC, Oregon and Iowa.

Those marquee matchups across the conference will create hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Bruins, unlike Oregon and Washington, are going to enjoy a full share of that loot.

Jarmond should not be shy about spending it to sweeten Lynn’s deal and retain the rest of Kelly’s defensive assistants.

For the first time since Kelly’s arrival in Westwood, it feels like the Bruins are building a sustainable model for success.

Pay Lynn now. UCLA can worry about paying the Berkeley tax later.

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