From “Sissy Blue Shirts” to Bruin Blue Collars
Much has been made about LSU coach Ed Orgeron’s pre-game exchange with a UCLA fan upon arriving at the Rose Bowl. “Bring your (expletive) on, in that sissy blue shirt,” Orgeron dismissively quipped. I get it Coach O, UCLA is nestled between the Los Angeles royalty neighborhoods of Bel-Air and Holmby Hills, has the number one hospital in the western United States, is a top 10 research institution in the world, and has a baby bear as its mascot dressed in a powder blue Hawaiian shirt. All those factors generally scream VANILLA. Couple that with a lack of emphasis or investment in football over the past 20 years, and that comment, no matter how insulting, isn’t exactly out of left field.
The problem is these 2021 UCLA Bruins, after beating the purple off LSU and forcing Orgeron to walk out of the Rose Bowl with his Tiger tail between his legs, are about as soft as sandpaper. This team looks like they play inside a military base, not within the postcard backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains. They run the ball with the intention of a Big Ten team, stop the run with the ferocity of an SEC team and attack the quarterback with a relentlessness of a vintage ACC team. Are the UCLA Bruins actually the most blue-collar team in the PAC-12?
Baby Blue in the Big Bad Trenches
Overall rushing yards say it all from last Saturday night’s game: UCLA amassed a whopping 210, and LSU a measly 49. For the Tigers, it wasn’t from a lack of trying; their 25 rushing attempts made this the second week in a row the Bruins held their opponent to under two yards per carry. LSU had one rushing yard at halftime, ONE! Their inability to penetrate the Bruins stout front four forced an over-reliance on their promising but young quarterback, Max Johnson.
In fact, the Bruins domination of the Tiger offensive line enabled Jerry Azzinaro to exclusively dial-up and disguise pressure in second & long and third & long obvious passing situations. Whether he would blitz with Ale Kaho and Bo Calvert from the linebacker spots, or Qwuantrezz Knight and Quentin Lake from the secondary, Johnson was constantly perplexed in where the pressure was coming. There was only one certainty: that it was coming.
While Johnson did have success at times with his favorite target Kayshon Boutte, primarily on intermediate out routes and horizontal curls, Bruin corners were allowed to play physical bump-and-run coverage knowing LSU couldn’t run on the Bruins and that the linebacker crew, led by Mitchell Agude and company, would not give Johnson enough time to hit his spots. This led Johnson to be picked off once, sacked twice, hurried five times, and be so desperate to get rid of the ball to avoid the punishment that he even had a bizarre no-look behind-the-back pass attempt that somehow fell incomplete in the second quarter. Johnson also missed a sure touchdown pass on a relatively innocent slant route that he buried in the ground given the impact of UCLA’s avalanche of pressure.
On the offensive side of the ball, it was run-first business-as-usual with Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. Many Bruin fans wondered if the success in the run game against Hawaii was an aberration, and as the former great ESPN analyst Chris Berman used to say, “once is a mistake, twice is a pattern, three times is a habit.” The Bruin pattern followed 9.7 yards per carry between their dynamic duo versus Hawaii with 7.6 yards per carry. Charbonnet is turning into a Heisman candidate right before our eyes, with UCLA’s second touchdown a personal signature, where he accounted for 67 of the 71 yards on that drive.
His new nickname should be Bitcoin, because he’s providing college football with its fair share of economic uncertainty in a very short period. He’s potentially saving Chip Kelly’s job and costing Jim Harbaugh and Orgeron theirs. But Charbonnet and Brown can only be this successful if the offensive line is dominant – mission accomplished again.
DTR From Franchise to Role Player
If you told Bruin fans that through two games, Dorian Thompson-Robinson would average only 205.5 total yards per game and have a completion percentage of less than 53%, most would say the Bruins might eke out a 1-1 record but most probably be 0-2. In fact, Thompson-Robinson has had fewer total yards, completions, and touchdowns in his first two games combined than he did in last year’s opener versus Colorado. The big revelation for the Bruins is that the narrative has completely changed from questioning whether Thompson-Robinson can make the jump to greatness, to can DTR simply manage the greatness around him. Chip Kelly did a masterful job in protecting Thompson-Robinson from himself; he had only nine completions in the entire game consisting of safe, easy routes within 15 yards.
Thompson-Robinson’s three touchdown passes spanned 141 yards: 75-yards to Greg Dulcich, 45-yards to Kyle Phillips and 21-yards to Chad Cota. But the ball was in the air for only 40 of those yards, the other 101 yards were after the catch. In fact, Thompson-Robinson’s long score to Dulcich came on a wide-open play due to a coverage bust after 11 consecutive runs. Kelly found that the LSU linebackers were mightily struggling with communicating their zone assignments when Bruin receivers came across the field. He milked the short crossing routes from the second quarter onward that resulted in Dulcich and Phillips being wide open on the weak side of the field, or Charbonnet and Cota being equally open in the flat on check-downs. Thompson-Robinson didn’t have to make a tougher throw than anything he’s had to do in spring camp with basketball shorts on.
Going from Hunter to Hunted
The Bruins have officially arrived on the national scene. Jumping from unranked to #16 in the polls, having Sports Illustrated proclaiming them #1 in the Pac-12 power rankings and national analysts like Joel Klatt and even Trojan great Keyshawn Johnson, declaring them legit conference title contenders. Now comes the burden of expectation and managing a new spotlight, not to mention space on the bandwagon. The one remaining question with this team is whether they can win a game passing the ball when the opponent expects to pass, but if Kelly continues to discover and exploit in-game adjustments to protect Thompson-Robinson, the recipe of physically running the ball and playing outstanding defense is timeless and universally successful for the win column.
My preseason prediction for UCLA was 8-4 with the four losses to LSU, Washington, Oregon, and USC. But after watching the Bruins convincingly beat LSU and seeing Washington lose to FCS Montana at home, this is feeling closer to 10-2. The PAC-12 took non-conference play on the chin last week with bad losses to Montana, Utah State, Nevada, Kansas State, Purdue, and BYU.
Even preseason conference co-favorites Oregon and USC each looked lifeless at home. ASU and Utah remain a mystery and the volatility of college football week-over-week is what makes this sport spectacularly special, but it’s no longer far fetched to think these blue-collar Bruins could be wearing very different t-shirts at season’s end – one’s not saying “sissy” but “champion.”