Certain athletes are so transcendent that we remember their mythology by just a single play. Willie Mays had “the catch” in 1954. LeBron had “the block” in 2016. MJ had “the shot” in 1982…and then “the shot II” in 1989…and then “the shot III” in 1998. Other icons we remember by single games. Tom Brady had “the comeback” in the 2017 Super Bowl. Curt Schilling had the “bloody sock” game in the 2004 ALCS. Kobe had the “Mamba Out” game in 2016 and Vince Young may have had the greatest game in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Now, Dorian Thompson Robinson is nowhere near that pantheon of all-time greats, but if the Bruins 2021 season turns out to be magical, this will be known as the “shoulder game” in Bruin football history.
One minute into the 4th quarter with the score tied at 21, UCLA had lost the lead, the momentum, and the health of their starting QB since midway through the second quarter. The most ardent UCLA football fans and most faithful DTR supporters would be lying if they said they didn’t begin to lose hope. Taylor McKee had just thrown an NFL-caliber 25-yard post to Bryce Farrell en-route to a 52-yard touchdown pass. The Cardinal scored 14 unanswered points while the Bruins looked about as shaky as a politician’s conviction in consecutive second-half possessions. And then it happened…
DTR’s signature moment as a Bruin lasted nine seconds. A perfect go-route to Kyle Phillips perfectly splitting the Stanford secondary, like a knife cutting butter, to a 75-yard touchdown. Following a Cardinal field goal, DTR would extend the Bruins lead with another 4-yard clutch strike to Phillips on 3rd & goal to ice the game. Perhaps inspired by Jake Haener’s performance a week earlier, DTR gutted through a painful shoulder sprain on his throwing side leading the Bruins to a triumphant 35-24 victory, their 2nd consecutive victory at The Farm. While DTR’s heroics rightfully take center stage as UCLA will head into October nationally ranked for the first time since 2015, lost in translation are three key mathematical patterns that illustrate the Bruin’s success.
2:1 Run Vs. Pass Mix
The 2:1 ratio is a powerful one in the Bruin offense. UCLA went back to a play-calling mix that ran the ball two-thirds of the time and passed one-third. Against Stanford, UCLA had 51 rushes versus 29 passes for a run ratio of 64%. This was consistent with their victories against Hawaii and LSU, where they had run ratios of 66% and 75%, respectively. In their lone loss to Fresno State, the Bruins had a run ratio of only 55%.
Against the Cardinal, the Bruins did an outstanding job of consistently feeding Zach Charbonnet in the first half, then giving him a 3rd quarter reprieve with Brittain Brown providing a change of pace, and then having Charbonnet fresh for the 4th quarter stretch run leading to a team-high 23 carries for the game.
The Bruins are still straight throwing on first down a bit too much, as they should exclusively be running or leveraging the RPO to generate play-action passes. I counted about a half dozen times the Bruins threw on first down that resulted in a wild in-completion or a sack that set the offense paralyzingly behind the chains. Chip Kelly seemingly still has fleeting hopes for DTR becoming a serviceable NFL prospect, but hate to break it to Chip, four games into year four and the cement has hardened on DTR. Need to utilize him for what he is: an elite college athlete playing QB.
2:1 Rush Yards Gained Vs. Allowed Mix
The other significant 2:1 ratio for the Bruins is rushing for 200 yards while allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards. Against the Cardinal, UCLA translated those 51 rushes into 204 yards while only allowing a meager 67. Similarly, in the win against Hawaii, the Bruins ran for 244 yards and only allowed 26 yards. While in the win against LSU, UCLA ran for 210 and only gave up 49. In the lone loss to Fresno State, those numbers were negated as the Bruins ran for only 117 yards and gave up 114. Getting ground success against the Cardinal enabled UCLA to not only control time of possession but also wear down the defense with an exorbitant number of plays (80 to 54).
Furthermore, this 2:1 recipe enabled Jerry Azzinaro’s defense to stay fresh with its stifling run defense suffocating Nathaniel Peat’s ability to run laterally with any success. This ultimately made the Cardinal one-dimensional through the air and allowed the defense to consistently tee-off with its exotic blitz packages. Thereby preventing Stanford from getting into any sustained offensive rhythm (only 11 first downs for the game), except for two big plays at the end of the first half and McKee’s two-deep passing touchdowns after halftime.
This is, quite simply, the Bruins double-dare defensive strategy: make the opposing QB beat you without a consistent running game, having to face a relentless pass rush while having to make repeated NFL quality throws over the top of the secondary. All three of Mckee’s TD passes would make NFL scouts salivate: the strike to Farrell, the 56-yard inside slant double-move to Elijah Higgins immediately prior, and the 19-yard corner fade to Brycen Tremayne. The Bruins are simply banking that there aren’t many QB’s at the college level that can make enough of those throws repeatedly to win…and they’re right.
Triple-Double Receiving Threats
UCLA is 3-0 this season when at least three receivers have 2+ catches, while in their lone loss to Fresno State, only Kyle Philips and Kam Brown were exclusive DTR targets. Saturday at the Farm had Phillips (5 catches), Charbonnet (5 catches), and Greg Dulcich (3 catches) providing this triple-double phenomenon. The biggest weakness to DTR’s game is his inability to make 3rd and 4th order progressions without his poise or mechanics breaking down. Thus, Kelly’s big challenge is how to synthetically create this tri-receiver involvement when the QB doesn’t naturally pepper it all over the field. Against Stanford, Kelly found the running back check down to the weak side of the field a particularly useful weapon as DTR went to Charbonnet on three consecutive plays in the drive right before halftime to put the Bruins up 21-7.
It seemed that the predetermined progression in DTR’s head for passing on 1st and 2nd down was “Phillips or check down or run,” and on 3rd down it was, “Dulcich or run.” DTR found Dulcich on two key third-down conversions including a critical 17-yard completion on 3rd down with about five minutes left in the game from the Stanford 38 to set up the game’s final touchdown.
These predetermined frameworks for DTR were extremely effective; the key will be if Kelly can find enough incremental week-over-week wrinkles in those progressions to keep the W’s rolling. Perhaps Kelly can call Terrance Tao, UCLA professor, Fields Medalist, and arguably the greatest pattern-discovering mathematician of the 21st century, for an office hour.
But bottom line, this was all about the 4th quarter clutch gene performance of the guy wearing #1 in UCLA colors. While it may not have had the theatrics of his 67-63 “PAC-12 After Dark” victory against Washington State in 2019, or the fireworks of both his USC performances in 2019 and 2020, it had the substance, style, and consequence of a career-defining win.
Number one’s performance has also set the stage for the other number one in UCLA’s schedule, namely, the number of remaining games against a ranked opponent. UCLA’s October 23rd showdown with #3 Oregon at the Rose Bowl is its only ranked game left on the schedule (and perhaps the only Top 25 game in the PAC-12 all year). This will be the only game from here on out that UCLA will be an underdog; even if they lose that game and win the rest, they will clinch the PAC-12 South title and most probably have a rematch with the Ducks.
In other words, thanks to DTR’s signature highlight, UCLA has a chance to follow up its epic Final Four basketball run with a memorable football season to reclaim complete LA collegiate sports dominance. Something the powder blue and gold haven’t done since before a guy named Pete Carroll showed up to downtown LA.