The UCLA Bruins definitively took care of business Saturday night at The Farm against undermanned Stanford. Scoring on three of their first four possessions coupled with a stifling defense that only yielded 292 total yards, a measly 24 of which were on the ground, for the game, UCLA built a 21-0 first-half lead and was never threatened while cruising to a 42-7 resounding victory that evened their conference record to 2-2.
Here are five major takeaways:
Game Manager Garbers
In a surprising plot twist, Chip Kelly subtly announced a new starting quarterback just hours before kickoff. Redshirt junior Ethan Garbers regained QB1 status from his season-opening position against Coastal Carolina and was just the elixir this wounded offense needed.
In being robotically efficient for 240 passing yards and two touchdowns on 20/28, Garbers demonstrated three characteristics that will serve the Bruins mightily down the stretch.
First, he utilized check-downs as his primary read, evidenced by his modest but meaningful 8.6 yards per pass attempt. Second, his own running ability in generating 51 rushing yards on eight carries brought a variety to Kelly’s zone-read scheme in not allowing defenses to simply crash to the running backs, while also being able to extend plays in the face of pressure. Third, he protected the ball, as evidenced by zero Bruin turnovers, while also distributing the ball to multiple receivers effectively as this was the first game all season UCLA had five different receivers with at least three receptions.
Running Game Pecking Order
This could have been an ideal time to go running back by committee given the talent discrepancy versus Stanford, but Kelly has doubled down on this team’s identity with Carson Steele as its unquestioned workhorse.
This was the third consecutive game Steele had 20+ carries as Saturday’s birthday boy went for 76 yards and three touchdowns. It seems that the order of running backs is just as important to Kelly’s 2023 strategy as the variety of them. Steele’s centerpiece role is also to wear down the defense with punishing runs, imposing physicality, and pain infliction for the defense on every carry.
Once the defense has had the requisite number of body blows, cue Keegan Jones or TJ Harden to change tempo and attempt to outrun a tired unit for game-altering highlights. The latter had a beautiful 22-yard touchdown run demonstrating the pace and precision of cutbacks that made Bruin insiders salivate from spring practice. For the Bruins, it’s not just thunder and lightning, it’s thunder BEFORE lightning.
We’re starting to take this unit’s performance for granted, as the week-over-week narrative of their historic excellence is being repeated like a broken record. But UCLA’s defense shined yet again with four sacks, seven tackles for loss, one interception, and one forced fumble. They rank in the top 10 nationally in most major statistical categories and the 14.9 points allowed is the best clip a Bruin defense has had in 35 years.
Gabriel Murphy was this week’s defensive star in the ever-present revolving door of superstar stoppers, as demonstrated by two sacks coupled with two tackles for loss. The identity of this team begins with suffocating defense and coupled with a methodical running game, the 2023 UCLA Bruins would make the likes of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Tom Osborne, and Barry Switzer proud.
This group is a throwback to an earlier era of college football and their style juxtaposed against the high-octane offenses of Oregon, Washington, and USC is what makes the second half of this PAC-12 race so intoxicating. Styles make fights, and nobody left on UCLA’s schedule has the blue-collar, bring your lunch pail mantra of these Bruins.
Related: UCLA Gets Its Season Back On Track
Questionable Special Teams
The one blemish for the Bruins leaving Palo Alto was the special teams as kicker RJ Lopez missed both his field goal attempts. That, combined with questionable decision-making on who to return kicks and punts, primarily being Colson Yankoff, and the Bruins seem to be leaving easier scoring opportunities, better field position potential, and sudden momentum infusions on the table.
As the Bruins offense is only averaging 31.3 points per game, good for 46th in the country, there will come a time, particularly against the PAC-12’s elite where every possession will matter, and setting up the offense for success will be paramount.
There’s still time for improvement, but the return game is an ideal opportunity for Kam Brown to get more touches. Furthermore, in a year where offenses have reigned supreme in the PAC-12, no single position outside of quarterback has been more instrumental to the current standings than kicker.
After all, Oregon lost to Wahington because of a missed field goal as the clock struck zero. Utah beat USC thanks to a field goal as time expired. Arizona State was unable to upset Washington because of a lack of confidence in kicking field goals. While Oregon State lost to Washington State by a field goal. Lopez needs to up his game down the stretch if the Bruins want to win out and threaten for a PAC-12 title bid.
Speaking of the future, Kelly has a major decision on his hands: go back to Dante Moore against Colorado or ride the steady, hot hand in Garbers. Moore certainly looked physically and emotionally exhausted after the Oregon State game, and a one-game break not only felt reasonable but also probable.
However, with Colorado and Shedeur Sanders coming to town this homecoming weekend, the game plan will look significantly different depending on Kelly’s signal-caller of choice.
In Moore, he gets the greater ceiling with multi-dimensionality of field, throws, and arm angles at his disposal, but also a greater risk of mistakes.
In Garbers, Kelly doesn’t get anything spectacular, but an effective, stable, inside-the-box game manager who will gladly trade highlights for ball security.
Given the Bruins have five games left on their schedule where they are the more physical team versus any of their opponents from here on out, it seems rationality would dictate putting your defense in the best possible position to win games for you. After all, a 5-0 stretch would mean finishing 7-2 in the conference. Given the murderer’s row that is the PAC-12 this year, with the right tiebreaks, the Bruins would very feasibly be in Las Vegas for history’s final PAC-12 title game.
The future is Moore. But the future is also now, and Garbers provides the best chance to win now.