Yes, folks, you read that correctly. From afar, this Saturday afternoon’s midseason PAC-12 tussle at the Rose Bowl between 10th ranked Oregon and unranked UCLA seems like just another harmless day of sun, fun, pageantry, and possibilities. But upon closer inspection, this is the fifth-biggest game in UCLA football history since the turn of the millennium. Before we delve into why, let’s walk down memory lane recapping the previous four in chronological order.
2005: #11 UCLA 19, #1 USC 66
This was year three of the Karl Dorrell experiment and led by Drew Olson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Marcedes Lewis, the 2005 version of the Bruins were known as the “Cardiac Kids.” Four 4th quarter double-digit comeback victories propelled the Bruins to an 8-0 record, and the magical ingredients of a team of destiny. Even though their undefeated season was ended at the hands of Arizona two weeks prior, the Bruins still came into the 75th edition of the Crosstown Rivalry with a chance at the Pac-10 title. Win and it was theirs.
Unfortunately, they ran into the peak of the Pete Carroll era; a Trojan team that was two-time defending national champions with a 33-game win streak going into the game. Against perhaps the greatest college football team of the 21st century, the Bruins lost by 47 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. They trailed 52-6 going into a garbage time 4th quarter.
2012: #17 UCLA 24, #8 Stanford 27
This was year one of the Brett Hundley-Jim Mora era and after six consecutive years of mediocrity, the Bruins surprised everyone to a 9-3 record collecting a Pac-12 South title along the way. In the 2nd ever PAC-12 Championship game, the Bruins, led by all-time leading rusher Jonathan Franklin, took a 24-17 lead into the 4th. One quarter away from their first Rose Bowl appearance in 14 years. It wasn’t meant to be as Stanford answered with 10 quick points in the first eight minutes of the 4th. Despite that, UCLA had a chance to tie it with a 51-yard field goal that went wide left as time expired.
I was there for that game with my dad. I’m convinced he still wakes up periodically in the middle of the night with cold sweats from that loss.
2014: #9 UCLA 10, Stanford 31
In the final year of the Hundley era, the Bruins were once again a 9-win team going into the regular-season finale. Win against unranked Stanford and give Hundley a shot at redemption against Oregon in another PAC-12 title game after his Freshman year. The Bruins jumped out to a 7-0 lead tanks to a Hundley connection to Thomas Duarte in the first quarter. They would be outscored 31-3 the rest of the way as the Cardinal methodically grinded away the clock, the temp and the Bruins resolve by outgaining them 436-262.
2015: #22 UCLA 21, USC 40
The Bruins followed their 3-year, 29-win run from Hundley with a signal-caller who alternated nicknames between “The Chosen Rosen” and “The Rosen One.” Five-star recruit Josh Rosen lived up to every bit of the phenom hype en route to PAC-12 Freshman of the Year honors. The Bruins were 8-3 heading into the battle with SC in the de-facto PAC-12 South Championship game. Up 21-20 midway through the 3rd quarter, Rosen finally showed his age with turnovers on back-to-back possessions that directly led to 14 quick Trojan points, breaking open a nail-biter. The Bruins haven’t been in sniffing distance of a division title since.
Four games. Two versus Stanford, two versus USC. In each game, the Bruins played for an outright division or conference title in the regular season’s final game. Unfortunately, they came up short in each and that’s the origin of the 23-year conference title drought. Now I know what you’re thinking, “what about the famed 13-9 victory over SC in 2006?”
That was the greatest outcome for UCLA football this century, but it wasn’t a big game for the Bruins themselves. Sure, for any Bruin, denying USC a 4th consecutive national title game appearance against a 6-5 team is delicious. But preventing your arch-nemesis from dating your crush isn’t the same thing as YOU getting to date your crush.
“Why So Special Son?”
In paraphrasing Heath Ledger from The Dark Knight, this game is so special because it is ESPN Gameday’s first appearance for a UCLA-hosted game in 23 years (ironically, the last time the Bruins were conference champions). Having ESPN set up their mobile studio outside Wilson Plaza makes Westwood the epicenter of the college football world for one day.
Not only is this the ultimate national showcase for how far the Bruin program has come under Chip Kelly, but also the preeminent media platform for attracting national recruits, prestigious branding sponsors, and a more diversified fan base. A win would signal UCLA football’s re-entry into the national conversation, give Chip Kelly his first signature win wearing the powder blue visor, and set the stage for the Bruins to realize their potential as the west coast’s third football power.
Demystifying The Ducks
Oregon is overrated, probably by 10 ranking spots. There I said it. The 2021 Oregon Ducks are the Kardashians of the PAC-12: famous for being famous and not because of any merit-based justification. The Ducks’ claim to fame is their hallowed September victory in the Horseshoe against the vaunted Buckeyes of Ohio State. A great win no doubt, but here’s why putting too much stock into that game as a season-defining victory is problematic.
First, Ohio State lost 11 starters from their 2020 national finalist team and this was only their second game of the season. In their first game, the Buckeyes gave up 31 points to a Minnesota team that has yet to exceed that point total since, against much weaker competition. There were clear September growing pains for the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball.
Second, Oregon had essentially six months to prepare for the game. We discount Group of Five teams when they beat Power Five teams in bowl games because they had 30+ days to prepare against a team that isn’t as excited to play them. So why are we giving Oregon a ticker-tape parade for the exact same scenario? Oregon circled this game on their calendar since the beginning of February, whereas it’s hard for the Buckeyes to match that intensity for any regular-season game when they’re used to being a perennial playoff team.
Third, and most importantly, the Ducks leading rusher and receiver from that game, CJ Verdell, is out for the season. Verdell was responsible for three touchdowns and anybody that watched that game could see that everything the Ducks did offensively was built off Verdell’s ability to run. Their counter, play-action, roll-out, screen, and misdirection plays were all predicated on the Buckeyes assuming Verdell was the first option in each of those scenarios. Using this Ducks performance as a barometer, now without Verdell, is apples-to-oranges. Furthermore, in the Duck’s five other games, they’ve looked mediocre at best and fraudulent at worst.
Part of the problem is that the PAC-12 NEEDS Oregon and USC to be good to get legitimate consideration at the playoff. Given the Trojans’ implosion so early in the season, all that burden has fallen onto the Ducks. New PAC-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is peddling the hype from that Ducks victory like a used car salesman because he’s trying to get an early victory in his young tenure and break the five-year PAC-12 college football playoff hiatus.
Big Money Bruins
This game has seen a drastic swing in point differential since the beginning of the week with UCLA crossing the chasm of expectation and becoming the two-point betting favorites. Every epic Vegas movie where the protagonist is brilliantly counting cards in blackjack is predicated on one principle: never let emotion get in the way of what the numbers reveal. The same can be said for why the Bruins are rightfully the favorite in this game.
The Ducks and Bruins are mirror images of one another: run-first, ball-control offenses with physical playmakers on defense and a desire to control both lines of scrimmage with aggressiveness. Coupled that with dynamic QB athletes that are most effective as complementary pieces once the running game is established. Each team is especially uncomfortable when falling behind, especially by more than one score, because it involves requiring their quarterbacks to go through progressions and make more pro-style throws.
But UCLA is just a better version of Oregon. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has more completions (101 vs. 89), passing yards (1,419 vs. 1,194), rushing yards (329 vs. 242), and passing touchdowns (13 vs. 7) than Anthony Brown. Additionally, Zach Charbonnet has more rushing yards (697 vs. 527) and rushing touchdowns (7 vs. 4) than Travis Dye. Also from an eye test standpoint, Dye is a serviceable straight-line runner but simply doesn’t have all the juke buttons on his console that Charbonnet does. Furthermore, the top two receivers of UCLA, Greg Dulcich and Kyle Phillips, have more than double the combined receptions (45 vs. 22), almost triple the combined receiving yards (743 vs. 339), and triple the combined receiving touchdowns (9 vs. 3) than their counterparts, Johnny Johnson III and Jaylen Redd.
The only Oregon player that’s truly better than anyone else on the field is Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Bruins must run the ball away from him but also leverage the misdirection and screen-game to his side of the field. His propensity for making the spectacular play often leads him to lose defensive containment. But double-clicking further on Brown; outside of the Ohio State game, the Ducks have had only five critical offensive possessions all season. Their OT possession against Stanford, along with their tying and go-ahead drives against Fresno State and Cal, respectively.
In the OT drive against Stanford, the Ducks only gained two yards. The game-tying field goal drive against Fresno State when the Ducks were down 24-21 was the result of a Bulldogs fumble and the Ducks went only 25 yards, ALL on the ground. The game-winning drive consisted of only one pass: a Brown 32-yard throw to Johnson. The game-tying touchdown drive against Cal consisted of only two throws: a check down to Dye and a beautiful 20-yard inside post to Redd. Finally, the game-winning drive consisted of only two throws: a screen and a straight check down to Dye.
Five drives. Five completed passes total. Only two beyond the line of scrimmage. Brown has only made two down-the-field pressure throws all season. DTR has had more go-ahead 4th quarter DRIVES this season (3 vs. 2) where he’s been the primary playmaker than Brown has had meaningful throws. You simply can’t hide your quarterback like that, especially on the road against an explosive team, and expect to go unscathed.
Welcome back to the national college football ethos, Bruins. The party in Westwood will begin a few minutes after 4 pm PST on Saturday and go well into the night after a 35-30 UCLA victory.