Thousands of UCLA underclassmen and transfer students were welcomed to campus for the first time this week, culminating in a grand Westwood Village block party. While the feeling of euphoria and excitement is filling the academic air, Saturday is test day for the UCLA football team. An exam in week 5 is a feeling every Bruin student will become all too familiar with, thanks to the beautiful gifts of a quarter system. But Saturday’s football exam is 3.5 hours and has one question: was last week an aberration courtesy of a transcendent individual performance, or was it foreshadowing deficiencies that will continue to rear their ugly heads?
It’s fitting this test is against Stanford, the Pac-12’s academic royalty and the institution that UCLA most strives to emulate. Academic dominance of an Ivy League school? Check. Athletic excellence of a big state school? Check. Prestigious alumni, that consistently change the world? Check. It’s the school Chancellor Gene Block had at the top of his mind when hiring AD Martin Jarmond, challenging him to turn the Bruins into consistent big sport champions with integrity on and off the field.
While USC is UCLA’s younger brother roommate who doesn’t take himself too seriously, probably has way more fun at parties, and has an entitled naivete that can be both charming and infuriating at the same time, Stanford is the Bruins’ older brother with the gorgeous spouse, breathtaking home, tens of millions in the bank, all while oozing social and political capital in his community.
“Nerd Nation” is the Baby Bruins’ barometer. UCLA has the second most NCAA championships with 119. Stanford? 128. UCLA was ranked 8th best university in the country by Forbes in 2022. Stanford? 1st. Even when the first internet message was created at UCLA in 1969, where was it sent? The Stanford Research Institute. So, it’s appropriate that this test is at The Farm, and by 6:30 PST Saturday night, we’ll know if the Bruins are back on their way to making the Dean’s List or are one step closer to academic probation.
How We Got Here
While it was surprising that the Bruins lost last Saturday night, it was shocking HOW they lost. Two weeks into the season, the Bruins were predicated on three principles: a.) physicality in both trenches that resulted in a blitzing, ball-hawking defense, b.) a downhill run-first approach led by the best running back duo in the Pac-12, c.) a pass game built off play-action with the tight end being a focal point. Those principles not only didn’t show up but were also blown to smithereens.
Fresno State dominated both lines of scrimmage with a controlled remix west coast passing scheme that would have made Bill Walsh and the 49ers of the 80s and early 90s proud. Wide receivers Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly looked like Jerry Rice and John Taylor, while Jake Haener simply had one of the greatest road quarterbacking performances in Rose Bowl history. His guts, poise, and precision leading two touchdown drives in the final three minutes will be one of the truly inspiring highlights of the 2021 college football season.
But lost in the theater of the game’s final eight minutes was that Fresno State dominated time of possession with 40.5 minutes, nearly doubled the number of first downs (32-17), held Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown to a combined 15 carries for a measly 42 yards and limited Mackey Award candidate Greg Dulcich to ZERO catches.
The Bulldogs’ bully ball up front led to a methodical 13-point halftime lead and forced the Bruins to completely abandon the run game in the second half as there was a sense that UCLA would only have 3-4 more possessions the rest of the way. The key adjustment Chip Kelly made was going to a more traditional spread set in lieu of run-friendly bunch formations that were so successful in the season’s first two games. This freed up Kyle Phillips to have his best game of the season and speedster Kam Brown emerged as a budding playmaker, as the Bruins exploited one-on-one matchups in space on the outside.
The frenetic play of the second half felt a lot like UCLA of 2019 & 2020, where the Bruins were forced to overly rely on QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson. While DTR was spectacular at times and led the Bruins on four second-half touchdown drives including a go-ahead score with 54 seconds left, he also had several near interceptions and multiple unforced fumbles. But DTR is what James Harden is in the NBA and Lamar Jackson is in the NFL; a wildly creative talent who simply cannot be the best player on a team with championship aspirations. Despite DTR’s erratic heroics, the Bruin secondary got surgically carved up like a twenty-pound turkey on Thanksgiving.
What To Expect
Stanford looks like a new team after making the quarterback change to Tanner McKee in the fourth quarter of the Cardinal’s first game against Kansas State. McKee led Stanford to its first touchdown drive of the season in that KSU game, followed by back-to-back 40 pieces against USC and Vanderbilt. McKee has helped David Shaw get to 34-0 in his career when the Cardinal score 40+ points in a game.
Lost in the sudden QB change was that McKee was a five-star recruit and the number three player in the Class of 2018 prior to a two-year Latter-day Saint mission in Brazil. Not only is McKee looking like the second coming of Andrew Luck, but his favorite target, Brycen Tremayne, dominated the USC secondary in the Coliseum two weeks ago and was a preeminent factor in Clay Helton filing for unemployment.
Rest assured, the Cardinal have watched the Fresno State tape and look to attack the Bruin secondary with Tremayne and WR Elijah Higgins the way the Bulldogs used Cropper and Kelly. Furthermore, home run threat on the ground, Nathaniel Peat, has a lot of Bulldogs RB Ronnie Rivers, to his game. The Bruins need to be more disciplined in the secondary than they were a week ago and tighten passing lanes both over the top of zone looks as well as to the sidelines.
Furthermore, Chip Kelly needs to have more variety and unpredictability to his bunch versus spread formations. Look for Kelly to flip the script and potentially throw early in the game to set up the run late. It’ll be important to establish an early and safe rhythm for DTR with Dulcich involved early as this game has the making for a back-and-forth high-scoring affair.
For this season to feel different and a new culture to permeate, resilience needs to rule. Resilience has lacked in Bruin football over the years as even the most promising seasons have gone off the tracks with losing STREAKS. The famed 1998 season started 10-0, only for the Bruins to lose their last two. In 2000, the Bruins started 3-0 with victories over back-to-back number three teams in the country (Alabama & Michigan), only to lose six of nine and finish 6-6. In 2001, the Bruins started 6-0, ranked 3rd in the season’s inaugural BCS rankings, and then lost 4 of five to finish 7-4. The 2005 season began with the Bruins sprinting to 9-0, only to lose two of three by a combined 85 points. The 2012 season saw the Bruins sitting at 9-2 with Pac-12 title aspirations, only to crumble with a three-game losing streak.
Jarmond and Kelly are building a culture around an acronym for the term ELITE. To be elite, you need to stop the bleeding at one game and start a new win streak. To be elite, you need to beat elite, and no institution is more elite than Stanford. It’s time for the Bruins to be elite on test day and prevail 34-31.