If college football institutionalized a preseason, the first four weeks of UCLA’s September this campaign would be the case study on how to execute it. Saturday in Boulder book-ended Bruins fans to a new, non-March definition of the term “First Four.”
While the outcome against arguably America’s worst Power 5 team was never going to be in doubt, there were still critical, fundamental, and nuanced issues to address. Balanced schemes, crisp execution, and focused disposition were paramount as a precursor to Friday night’s showdown with the 18th ranked and fellow 4-0 residents, Washington Huskies. Mission accomplished across three dimensions.
Good DTR As Good As Anyone
As we embark on season five of the “Young & The Restless” soap opera, also known as Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s career, Saturday afternoon provided a glimpse into the tantalizing possibilities of what this team could look like if he actualizes all his prodigious talents. This was the best DTR looked all season in route to German-like efficiency of 19/23 for 234 yards with two TDs and zero INTs accompanying his 56 yards rushing on just seven carries. Beyond the statistics, DTR commanded a season-best offensive tempo, receiver variety, and precision passing.
This was highlighted by his 24-yard first-quarter touchdown laser to Matt Sykes that demonstrated an NFL-like accuracy in a very tight throwing window on an inside-slant with over-the-top safety help. Arguably the most NFL-caliber throw for a touchdown pass over the course of his five-year career.
DTR now has eight touchdown passes for the season to eight different Bruins receivers: a testament to his elevated leadership in trusting so many players, but also to Chip Kelly’s schematic wizardry.
While DTR’s attempts at throwing the ball down the field have been very limited, Kelly has instituted horizontal variety to keep defenses off-balance. The cement has probably hardened on DTR’s ability to master third and fourth progression reads. Yet, despite that limitation, Kelly seems to architect a new offense with DTR making only one read before getting the ball out quickly.
This has remained mysterious enough to be effective because defenses can’t cheat on any receiver. Having the plethora of play-makers with the confidence in making critical receptions and touchdowns allows the offense to find the critical match-up, rather than the play-maker, to exploit. If you can’t scare them vertically, Kelly is scaring them horizontally with the abundance of variety.
Caleb Williams is the class of PAC-12 quarterbacks, but even he was significantly limited with the right complexity of secondary scheme and depth of talent. Cameron Rising just lost his primary receiving target for most likely the season. Michael Penix Jr. has never demonstrated an ability to carry strong play into October and November.
While Bo Nix is seemingly always one bad throw from riding the bench forever. Good DTR is a top two PAC-12 QB and with the right fastball, can be the conference’s best QB on any given night. We were reminded of that again on Saturday.
Charby’s Back…Back Again…Charby’s Back…Tell A Friend
If the receiving room is a democracy, defined by interchangeable parts with an ever-so-slight leaning to Jake Bobo in critical moments, the running back room is a dictatorship with an indisputable centerpiece. Not like anybody needed a reminder, but Zach Charbonnet emphatically jarred any cobwebbed memories about who the conference’s and country’s best running back is, with a virtuoso 104 yards and three TDs on just a minuscule nine carries.
Shades of Hawaii last year re-emerged, as Charbonnet demonstrated that perfect hybrid of Marshawn Lynch’s tenacity in shedding tacklers with Jerome Bettis’ deceptively quick feet for a man who is that powerfully built. His initial 35-yard touchdown run culminated in a brilliant inside-out move that exhibited smooth decisiveness, while his final 46-yard touchdown run provided a flurry of lateral counter jukes that showcased his improvisational creativity.
The offensive identity of this team is now firmly established heading into the meat of the schedule: everything begins with establishing Charbonnet’s dominance at the line of scrimmage countering with DTR’s running and horizontal quick throwing off that bread and butter. Having only expended 43 carries across the season’s first four games, Charbonnet has the freshness to be the necessary workhorse over the final eight regular season games that will enable the Bruins to protect leads, counter tempo, and inflict defensive body blows in the front seven to ultimately wear out the opposition.
Kelly has been consciously preserving Charbonnet for the stretch run, even exhibited in the Colorado game. As evidenced by the fourth and two on Colorado’s 27-yard-line during the Bruins fourth possession. With the score 21-3 and the outcome already inevitable, Kelly opted to use Keegan Jones for a short yardage conversion. If that’s a competitive game against an opponent that’s a legitimate threat to defeat the Bruins, Charbonnet is getting that carry every day of the week, and twice on Saturdays.
Kelly once ran Joshua Kelley 40 times in the Bruins 2018 game versus USC. When the stakes are raised and the screws are tightened, Kelly gets more aggressive situationally but much more conservative tactically. Expect Charbonnet to have 175 carries over the rest of the regular season.
Bruins Pass Rush is Gold Rush
The game versus the Buffaloes was playfully nicknamed “The Gold Rush,” by CU’s athletic department. While questions remain about the Bruins defense’s ability to completely stuff the run or consistently stop the pass, one thing is evident through the Bruins “preseason”: across a mediocre defensive unit, the pass rush can be the conference’s best along with Utah. While Charbonnet was the game’s most spectacular player, Laiatu Latu was its most valuable player. His performance chalked him up for the PAC-12’s Defensive Player of the Week.
Latu’s four tackles, three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, and systematic extraction of Buffs true freshman quarterback Owen McCown’s confidence over the course of the game was a work of destructive beauty. Latu was supported by one of his partners in crime, Grayson Murphy, whose two tackles for loss and one sack were the ideal supplement to generating incessant pressure in the backfield that prevented the Buffaloes from having two consecutive positive offensive plays all game. Latu was all over the field with a combination of straight-line rushes, lateral pressures, and enforcing strip sacks on a constantly scrambling McCown.
The key for Bill McGovern moving forward schematically is how to intentionally generate ways for opposing offenses to be faced with obvious passing situations on second and third down. This will enable him to most often showcase the Bruins optimal pass rush package of Latu, the Murphy twins, and Carl Jones Jr. unleashing chaos on the quarterback. Those four are the anchor upon which the defensive’s strategic architecture should be built moving forward.
This may involve McGovern invoking more two-high safety looks, or an outright variant of Tampa-2 coverage, on first down to provide the impression of a light box and then have the like of Darius Muasau and Bo Calvert swarm to the ball to limit first down rushing gains.
Either way, the Bruins defensive message is clear: quarterbacks and running backs can’t hurt you if they’re stopped in their backfield tracks.
Contender or Pretender?
In the movie “Angels in the Outfield,” Danny Glover once said, “you can’t fall out of last place.” The corollary to that is you can’t do better than undefeated. Regardless of how disjointed the Bruins may have looked at times, they are 4-0 for the first time since 2015, they are one of only 21 teams in FBS to be undefeated, and the Bruins have the nation’s 3rd longest winning streak at seven games, and have the longest UCLA win streak since starting 8-0 in 2005.
The Bruins have only four major tests this season: Washington this Friday night, Utah, Oregon, and USC. All will be played at a hopefully packed home stadium, except for the Ducks game. Split those and this team is 10-2 overall, 7-2 in conference play, and most likely would have secured a spot in the PAC-12 title game.
It has been 24 years since the Bruins won the conference and played in the Rose Bowl. Everything they want to accomplish is still in front of them. The preseason is now officially over. We find out Friday evening whether 4-0 was a seasonal certainty or a scheduling anomaly.