Bruins Almost Let Wildcat Out Of The Bag

UCLA Bruins Linebacker Caleb Johnson. Photo Credit: UCLA Athletics
UCLA Bruins Linebacker Caleb Johnson. Photo Credit: UCLA Athletics

Perhaps the Bruins were emotionally hungover from the stinging loss to the Sun Devils. Or maybe the Bruins were caught peeking ahead to a pivotal three-game stretch that will define their season. Or possibly the Bruins underestimated Jedd Fisch’s knowledge of their roster. Or realistically the Bruins simply didn’t take a team that had lost 16 games in a row too seriously. Whatever the case may be, the Bruins looked lifeless in a 34-16 victory, one that was tantalizingly closer than the score would indicate. This was a one-score game midway through the 4th quarter where Arizona had nearly triple the passing yards (240 vs. 82), had more first downs (27 vs. 22), and won the time of possession battle.

If not for Brittain Brown’s season-long 48-yard downhill TD run with 7:48 left in the 4th that finally made this a two-score game, Bruin nation came paralyzingly close to dealing with the unnecessary drama of a James Bond captivity scene. In fact, the first half of the 4th quarter saw the Bruins and Wildcats exchange fumbles (courtesy of Brown no less), and Arizona having multiple possessions with an opportunity to tie the game. But Brown’s moment of redemption prevented a possible Bruin mountain of remorse. Disaster averted (barely) and the Bruins maintain standing pressure on Arizona State and Utah, in what is shaping up to be a compelling PAC-12 South title three-horse race heading into the season’s final seven weeks.

Double Edge Sword Of History

All kinds of Bruin history were made in front of 43,258 fans on a chilly Tucson evening, as both Brown and Zach Charbonnet went over 100 yards in the same game for the first time this season. In fact, it was the first time since 2014 that UCLA had multiple 100-yard backs in the same game. Brown had a season-high 146 yards on 12 carries, consistently finding big holes in the Arizona defensive line, making one hard cut, and rumbling through clean blocks like an 18-wheeler down a traffic-free patch of the 405 freeway.

Charbonnet complemented with 117 yards on 21 carries, consistently getting between four and five yards per carry on hard-earned runs inside the tackle box. The Bruins followed a similar script to other victories, namely, a run ratio of 71% and having the lead for all but five minutes and 15 seconds of game time.

On the other side of “good history” was Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s first-half passing performance. Going 1-7 for 3 yards with a touchdown and an interception for an entire half might be the most bizarre passing stat line for any quarterback this side of 1990s Nebraska football you’ll ever see. That’s right folks, our esteemed editors never make a mistake, and that number before passing yards was correctly 3. His lone completion went to Greg Dulcich on a 4th & Goal play-action to successfully complete the Bruins first scoring drive. In fact, it was the fewest number of pass yards by any PAC-12 team for an entire half since 2017, and the fewest by a Bruin team since 2016. DTR had as many completions to his own team as he did to the opposing team for 30 minutes of football, courtesy of an intercepted heave ending the first half.

I have been clamoring for weeks that the Bruins play with fire when DTR’s usage rate goes too high. That he needs to be a complimentary piece and not a foundational one. But this was the other extreme; you’re not going to win too many games in today’s modern era with a quarterback on pace to make two completions. This isn’t 1970s Big 8 football. The stat line was so perplexing that ESPN analysts covering the game in primetime were convinced DTR was playing hurt (more on that later) despite any definitive reporting. His accuracy beyond 10 yards was clearly compromised, but just like he showed against Stanford and throughout his career, DTR gutted out another game, channeling his inner Mamba Mentality.

Game’s Turning Point

The Bruins’ second possession of the second half started with 8:18 left in the 3rd quarter at their own 25-yard line. To that point, the score was 17-16 in which the Wildcats’ five possessions resulted in four scoring drives and a 4th down stop inside the UCLA 30. Arizona was having no trouble moving the ball on a UCLA defense that has seemingly transformed from menacing to mediocre in a fortnight. The Bruins first possession of the second half resulted in a field goal courtesy of Kazimir Allen’s 73-yard kickoff return. DTR finally got another completion on a bubble screen to Kyle Phillips, but the Bruin drive stalled inside the Arizona 10. The Wildcats then answered with a field goal of their own from a methodical 11-play, five-minute drive.

This was the possession that saw Chip Kelly make the adjustment to put DTR under center, roll him out and simply throw to premeditated checkdowns. Out went the progression game, and the Bruins were also able to leverage DTR’s rollouts into designed quarterback runs and keep the Wildcat defense constantly guessing. The drive resulted in DTR having 47 of his 82 passing yards for the game, and 22 of his 28 rushing yards. It culminated in a 4-yard DTR keeper for a touchdown and gave the Bruins a 24-16 lead they would maintain until Brown’s back-breaking run. That drive seemingly gave the Bruin defense a jolt of energy, and chiseled away at the Wildcats’ self-belief, as Arizona’s final five possessions included two punts and two fumbles.

While kudos to Chip for making the necessary strategic adjustments given the physical compromises to his quarterback, one questions why DTR was even out there in the first place. Why not rest DTR in that Arizona game, put in serviceable Ethan Garbers, and have DTR refreshed for the rest of pivotal October? DTR spoke earlier in the week of continuing to nurse several nagging injuries derived from the Stanford game, ones only exacerbated versus ASU. While it seems Chip and DTR have a very special coach-QB bond and Kelly defers to DTR’s judgment on playing, let’s hope this “ultimate player’s coach” transformation Chip has had doesn’t bite the Bruins in the coming weeks.

Legacies On The Line

The Bruins can now officially look ahead to the second half of the season and the upcoming three-game stretch versus Washington, Oregon, and Utah. Immediately next is Washington, a 2-3 team having not scored more than 24 points in a regulation game all year. But in the topsy turvy world that is PAC-12 2021, those 24 points were barely enough to take a game against Cal into overtime and squeak by, but also ALMOST enough to knock off PAC-12 North leader Oregon State in Corvallis. However, UW’s lack of explosion on offense should enable the Bruins to play their brand of run-first offense, blitzing defense, tempo-controlled football and ultimately come away victorious in a hostile environment.

Part of DTR’s insistence on playing hurt comes from knowing the finish line to his Bruin career is near. Fair or not, the next six games will determine how the annals of UCLA history remember DTR. Is he more Brett Hundley or more Josh Rosen? Hundley is universally regarded as the most successful Bruin quarterback of the 21st century. 29 wins in three seasons, a Pac-12 South title, two bowl wins, and a 3-0 record versus USC. Rosen is known as the most gifted Bruin quarterback of the 21st century, with a career built on sublime moments, jaw-dropping throws, and that 34-point miraculous comeback versus Texas A&M. DTR is certainly more Rosen than Hundley now, but the stars are aligning for all of that to change.

USC is college football in LA. UCLA is college basketball in LA. Every 10-15 years, the door ever so subtly cracks open for that narrative to flip. Hundley came at a time when USC was on sanctions and almost reoriented college football in Los Angeles. But Hundley couldn’t quite ever win that last game. Turning good seasons into historic ones. Division titles into conference championships. Alamo Bowls into Rose Bowls. DTR has a chance to not only win the South but coupled with the three-ring circus that is USC today and the North not having dominant teams like the Oregon’s and Stanford’s Hundley had to deal with, a chance at so much more. There’s still time to add beauty to the canvas, but in two months, the paint will dry…and DTR knows it.

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