Friday Night Lights – Previewing UCLA Bruins vs. Washington Huskies
In many religions, Friday is sacred. A holy day that historically chiseled legacies, indelibly defined ideologies, and provided sanctity to faith. Thus, it’s fitting that the first crossroads of the 2022 Bruin football campaign commences on this day.
Friday night versus the 15th-ranked Washington Huskies is the first of four defining games this season that will ultimately determine how we think of Chip Kelly, how we remember Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and how we rally around Martin Jarmond as this Mighty Bruins brand rebuilds momentum in its pursuit to return to perennial top 25 status. Here are five things to watch for heading into Pasadena’s version of Friday Night Lights.
Looking In The Mirror
Outside of both teams being 4-0, there are eye-popping statistical similarities between the Huskies and Bruins. The Huskies enter the contest 1st in the PAC-12 in total offense at 530.8 yards per game, 1st in the conference in scoring at 44 points per game, and 3rd in total defense at 302 yards allowed per game. Conversely, the Bruins are 2nd in the PAC-12 in total offense at 508.3 yards per game, 4th in the conference in scoring at 41.8 points per game, and 2nd in total defense at 295 yards allowed per game. Furthermore, each team’s running game is anchored by an explosive and experienced workhorse. Washington’s Wayne Taulapapa has 307 yards and three touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry, while UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet has 293 yards and four touchdowns on 6.8 yards per carry.
The Huskies and Bruins also share questions about the legitimacy of their 4-0 records. While the Bruins soft September schedule has been well documented, playing the likes of three non-Power 5 teams and 0-4 Colorado, there’s also mysterious skepticism around the Huskies resume.
On the one hand, UW’s win over then 11th ranked Michigan State that vaulted them into the top 20 has lost significant luster after the Spartans subsequently got blown out 34-7 to Minnesota the following week at home. On the other hand, Washington beat Stanford 40-22 in a very similar fashion as presumed conference front-runner and 6th ranked USC handled the Cardinal, 41-28. Additionally, UW also defeated Kent State 45-20 by a larger margin of victory than defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia did, only defeating the Golden Flashes 39-22.
Fortunately, the transitive property in mathematics doesn’t hold on the football field. What we can derive is both teams are resoundingly undefeated, mostly untested, and somewhat unproven.
Rising Like A Penix
Spearheading the Huskies’ resurgence is the stellar play of quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who leads the nation with 1,388 passing yards and is 8th in the country with 12 touchdowns against only one interception. His quarterback rating is 70.3 points higher than last year at Indiana when he completed only 53.7% of his passes and had more interceptions than touchdowns (7-to-4). Huskies Nation was perplexed at how strongly newly minted head coach Kalen DeBoer recruited Penix Jr., given such a disastrous last season. But DeBoer rightfully ignored the 2021 version of Penix Jr, rather, opting for his vision in sensing what Penix Jr. could be under DeBoer’s customized tutelage. After all, DeBoer was offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019 when Penix Jr. had career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and QBR until their 2022 reunion.
DeBoer is also an old friend of Kelly, Thompson-Robinson, and the Rose Bowl. He was the coach at Fresno State last year, bringing in some quarterback named Jake Haener, who architected one of the greatest opposing signal caller performances in Rose Bowl history with 455 passing yards, culminating in the game-winning touchdown pass with 14 seconds left in a 40-37 triumphant upset of the 13th ranked Bruins. DeBoer’s familiarity with the venue, scheme, and quarterback, coupled with Kelly getting the opportunity to review recent, personalized film from just last year, will make the counter chess moves in this matchup rather compelling.
DTR’s Rusty Experience
Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s super senior season is off to a tremendous statistical start with a career-high 74.8% completion rate, 896 yards passing, eight touchdown passes to eight different receivers against only one interception. For a player on the cusp of making his 40th career start, the last concern going into the game should be experience level. Yet, welcome to another perplexing paradox in DTR’s career; while the quantity of his experience will soon be unprecedented in UCLA history, the quality of his experience is still questionable.
In fact, Friday night will be DTR’s first start versus a Power 5 opponent with a greater than .500 record in 342 days. The last time DTR had such a start was last year’s ESPN College Gameday extravaganza on campus and thriller at the Rose Bowl against Oregon; a game DTR couldn’t finish in heartbreaking fashion as the Bruins had the ball inside a minute beyond midfield with a chance to pull off the upset.
DTR tends to force the issue and erratically displays too much of his multidimensional athleticism in “showcase games.” This is especially the case early, so keep an eye out for how Kelly methodically works DTR into the game. Last year’s game versus LSU could be a blueprint when Kelly ran the ball 11 consecutive times early to set up the play-action home run 75-yard touchdown, courtesy of Greg Dulcich.
Grounding the “Air Raid”
DeBoer doesn’t run a variant of Mike Leach’s, Graham Harrell’s, or Lincoln Riley’s “Air Raid” offense, but UW’s offense is built on explosive pass plays with a plethora of athletic receivers. The Huskies are built around a quartet of receivers: Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Giles Jackson, each of whom have 10+ receptions, 100+ receiving yards, and 1+ touchdowns. In fact, this “quad squad” has combined for 65 receptions, 1,091 yards, and 10 touchdowns; that represents 71% of Penix Jr’s completions, 81% of his passing yards, and 77% of the quarterback’s passing touchdowns. The UW receiving room is the key problem matchup for the Bruins, especially given its shaky secondary play, particularly versus South Alabama.
Look for the Bruins to counter with a cat-and-mouse approach of trying to pressure and disrupt Penix Jr. before he can settle his feet, make appropriate reads, and generate clean releases. In doing so, the Bruins will counter with a quartet of their own: Westwood’s fearsome foursome pass rush of Grayson and Gabriel Murphy, Laiatu Latu, and Carl Jones Jr. These four have combined for nine of the Bruins 11 sacks this year, while Latu also leads the team with two forced fumbles and Jones Jr. had a spectacular interception last week versus Colorado. These are the Bruins’ defensive disruptors – paramount to getting Penix Jr. off schedule and out of rhythm so he’s unable to smoothly look for his playmakers downfield.
Tale Of The Trenches
The other significant matchup Friday night is the Bruins offensive line slugging it out with the Huskies defensive line. The Bruin men upfront have incrementally and consistently looked better since a catastrophic opening weekend versus Bowling Green. This unit will get its sternest test of the young season as the Huskies bring six players to Pasadena that have recorded more than one sack this season. The pass rush’s two primary stars are defensive lineman Bralen Trice, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks, and hybrid linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala, who leads the team with 23 tackles and is second on the Huskies with three sacks.
Expect Chip Kelly to counter this aggressive pass rush with misdirection runs and disguised, short horizontal pass plays, leveraging a permutation of the eight different Bruins that have caught touchdown passes this year.
This is also the week Jake Bobo will most likely separate himself as the true number one receiver, as he will be DTR’s primary weapon of choice on key 3rd down conversions with his reliable hands, massive 6’5 frame, and dynamic catch radius. The Bruins also will look to inflict pain and wear down the thick Huskies front seven with a healthy dose of body blows from the incomparable Charbonnet. This should open gash play-action opportunities.
When DTR talked about “unfinished business” as a primary reason for his year five return, he was talking about triumphing in games like this. Win and a certain top 25 ranking with a possible ESPN Gameday sequel awaits next week against Utah. Lose and questions about this program’s direction will dial up in volume. High-stakes drama that would make H.G Bissinger proud.