How Chess Master Chip Can Checkmate Trojans

How Chess Master Chip Can Checkmate Trojans

Jamal Madni
UCLA Bruins Running Back Zach Charbonnet. Photo Credit: Scott Chandler | UCLA Athletics
UCLA Bruins Running Back Zach Charbonnet. Photo Credit: Scott Chandler | UCLA Athletics

The time has come for two grandmasters to meet eye-to-eye overlooking the sunset at the “granddaddy of them all.” Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley face off for the first time in the history of the Victory Bell as two of today’s five greatest offensive masterminds in college football.

Kelly revolutionized the space-time continuum of the modern college game, emphasizing a blurred pace coupled with architected space for his playmakers to repeatedly thrive.

Riley learned from another mad scientist, Mike Leach, and his “Air Raid,” focused on straining the back end of defenses with consistent four and five-receiver sets that ran interchangeable routes, played screen and roll football off each other, and broke across all 360 degrees in stack formations.

Sure, Kelly is 0-2 lifetime against Riley, but that was when his young, bare, baby Bruins were going up against Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-contending quarterbacks and CFP-positioned teams. Although the latter hasn’t changed with the seventh-ranked, 9-1 Men to Troy coming to the Rose Bowl with a conquering eye towards a PAC-12 title and CFP berth, Kelly finally has the same quality of chess pieces on the board to inflict a resounding Cardinal & Gold checkmate.

Piece: King

Player: Dorian Thompson-Robinson

So goes DTR, so goes the Bruins. The player that quite literally the Bruins can’t win without, and the player Kelly has never coached at UCLA without. He comes into this game with career highs in completion percentage and quarterback rating, to accompany his 2,848 total yards and 27 total touchdowns.

If Caleb Williams is the PAC-12’s equivalent of Steph Curry, a player that can separate competitiveness from calm to generate game-by-game consistency, DTR is its Russell Westbrook.

His fiery, brash, take-everything-personal rage for all opponents is the potion that fuels his athletic greatness. But that personality type has its limitations; you can’t build 12-14 great performances from synthetically manufactured hatred. DTR is the ultimate EKG, he has four iconic performances in him every season, the challenge is to ramp him up emotionally to that optimal level right when it’s most necessary.

That’s been Kelly’s 2022 trigonometric challenge with his mercurial star, and he’s dialed those signals brilliantly. DTR’s season has looked like a sinusoidal wave, ramping up slowly through the first four weeks of the season versus inferior competition, maximized to peak amplitude against Utah and Washington, retreating down to Earth versus Oregon, and slowly ramping up again versus Stanford, Arizona State, and Arizona culminating for a repeat peak this Saturday.

In fact, after the Oregon loss, DTR’s performance against the Cardinal was a total reset to base fundamental plays and formations, Kelly then turned the knob on his unparalleled running dynamism versus ASU and attempted to hone his aerial accuracy against the Wildcats. The problem last week was DTR looked almost too calm and robotic in his attempts to be more of a pocket signal caller for a week…a non-issue against those fellas across town.

Everything is set for DTR to max out emotionally, physically, and tactically. Combining his natural instincts for the spectacular with his learned principles for the situational. The king is locked in.

Piece: Queen

Player: Zach Charbonnet

The most valuable piece on the chessboard for Kelly is the nation’s greatest running back. Everything begins with Charbonnet and all run-pass option variants are built off his sublime abilities.

“The Terminator” comes into Saturday leading the PAC-12 in rushing despite missing two full games and only playing half the time in two others. Since his nine-carry, three-touchdown tune-up performance against Colorado to close out the Bruins 4-game September “preseason,” Charbonnet has 109 carries for 852 yards and nine touchdowns in his last five games. That averages 22 carries for 170 yards on a staggering 7.8 yards per rush. He has decimated conference defenses with his unique combination of imposing physicality, nimble feet, and panoramic vision.

Kelly has once again demonstrated tremendous responsibility, empathy, and emotional intelligence in handling Charbonnet this season. Understanding Charbonnet’s return for a 2022 campaign, while a surprise worthy of winning the lottery, also meant tremendous risk of injury at football’s shortest lifespan position, weakened draft stock, and sub-optimal NFL future. Thus, he’s only used his most powerful piece when he’s had to and never taxed him with 25+ carries once this season.

However, the magnitude of Saturday, coupled with USC’s 49th-ranked rush defense susceptible to gaping holes, will lead to a 30+ carry, 200+ yard day for the 2022 Doak Walker semifinalist.

Charbonnet is not only the Bruins’ most valuable piece, but he’s also arguably the most important and powerful piece on the board (or at least this side of Caleb Williams).

Piece: Rook

Players: Kazmeir Allen, Keegan Jones

After the King and Queen, these are the two most potent pieces because of their ability to stretch the board horizontally and vertically. In his last two games, Kaz Allen finally began to demonstrate that multi-dimensional skillset that had Bruin faithful salivating about him being the spread offense Swiss army knife heir-apparent to the likes of Percy Harvin and D’Anthony Thomas. In fact, his 72-yard rushing touchdown against Stanford was only outdone a week later with his 75-yard explosion to paydirt versus the Sun Devils en route to a 200-scrimmage yard game.

Yet, the greatest evidence of Allen’s value came in how relatively unimaginative and predictable the offense looked against the Wildcats. The inability for Kelly to use Allen in bubble screens, pre-snap motions in and out of the backfield, as well as jet sweeps and direct hand-offs behind the line of scrimmage was a primary cause of last Saturday’s shocking defeat.

Couple Allen with fellow track star Keegan Jones, who has thrived in a traditional second running back role. In fact, Jones is Saturday’s X-factor, not because of the 98 rushing yards he showcased in Charbonnet’s absence versus ASU two weeks ago, but because of his ability to level up an outside linebacker from a direct checkdown position in the backfield and use his world-class sprinter speed to get to his spot on the sideline. That gear has enabled touchdown catches of 52 yards against Bowling Green and 36 yards versus Oregon.

The weakest level of USC’s defense is by far at linebacker, where depth, versatility, and lateral quickness are all below average. Look for Kelly to get Jones 10+ touches in this game through the air matched up with the likes of USC’s Shane Lee, or on traditional option run routes to the outside. Jones can be the 2022 Victory Bell version of Allen in 2021, where he broke out with three spectacularly long touchdowns.

Piece: Bishop

Players: Hudson Habermehl, Michael Ezeike

These are the pieces that can methodically go across the middle of the board to re-establish tempo, momentum, and field position. The two UCLA tight ends Habermehl and Ezeike look every bit the part of the next great NFL tight ends to come out of Westwood following in the footsteps of Caleb Wilson, Devin Asiasi, and Greg Dulcich.

They have combined for 29 catches for 335 yards and three touchdowns and shown value in complementary ways: the 6’6 Habermehl shows a Rob Gronkowski-like power while the 6’5 Ezeike illustrates a Tony Gonzalez-like catch radius and route tree range. The Trojan defense was most exposed by tight end Dalton Kincaid in USC’s only loss of the season in Salt Lake City, to the tune of 16 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown.

Kincaid was able to surgically carve up the USC zone at the defense’s second level, primarily picking on the Trojan linebackers’ lateral instinct and speed deficiencies to close passing lanes in underneath areas.

The defense was decimated to the point of forcing Alex Grinch to resort to a rotating 4-1-6 defensive concept where different linebackers would take turns dropping back in coverage outright or rushing the quarterback, thereby eliminating all multi-tasking complexity.

The likes of Lee, Tuli Tuipulotu, and Eric Gentry will almost assuredly be cheating in the box to try and limit Charbonnet getting a full steam and DTR finding scramble openings, while nickel corners will also have an eye on the likes of Allen and Jones stretching the field laterally. This should open plenty of soft spots in the middle of the field for DTR to drop soft throws to this sure-handed duo. Expect Habermehl and Ezeike to be two of the four leading receivers Saturday night.

Piece: Knight

Players: Jake Bobo, Colson Yankoff

These are the only pieces on the board that can change their movements, enabling Kelly to escape non-traditional and unexpected sticky situations. Bobo, the Bruins leading receiver with 43 catches for 651 yards and six touchdowns, has been the ultimate calm after the storm, enabling the Bruins to offensively get back on schedule with his timely 3rd down clutch receptions throughout the season. It is the variety of his route-running, large catch radius, and frame for such an agile receiver, and basketball-like post-up skills to get between his defender and the ball that has made no two Bobo catches alike, only in their massive importance.

For all Bobo’s exploits though, he only has two 100-yard receiving games on the season: 142 yards against a Huskies secondary that was missing three starters, and 101 yards against the Ducks where nearly 70 of those yards came in fourth-quarter garbage time when the outcome was obviously decided.

I don’t expect Bobo to light up the scoreboard, but his 5-6 catches for 75-80 yards will include essential drive extenders that can be the difference in the game.

The other Knight is Colson Yankoff, and while Bobo’s variety comes from his route-running, Yankoff’s comes from a Freshman Tim Tebow-like offensive package diversification.

Yankoff first burst onto the 2022 scene via the ground in the second half of the Alabama State game. Kelly then used him as a goal-line receiver out of the backfield against Colorado for two touchdowns and we saw Yankoff’s re-emergence as the running back needed to finally salt the Arizona State game away given his bruising running style and short-yardage prowess.

In a game with this much spotlight, I don’t expect Yankoff to get too many touches, but I expect to see him play a pivotal role in third/fourth down and short situations as a fullback, blocker, receiver, extra tight end, or decoy for a homerun attempt. Stops will be at a premium in this game and Yankoff’s ability to win 2-3 short-yardage battles over four quarters can swing the game in either direction.

Piece: Pawn

Players: Laiatu Latu, Gabriel & Grayson Murphy, Darius Muasau,

Carl Jones Jr., JonJon Vaughns

The pawns are the first line of defense, essential to solidify the board’s territorial balance and jurisdiction. The Bruins’ three best pass rushers are Latu and the Murphy twins, with the former having a team-leading eight sacks. However, the challenge with these three resides in their limitation to be straight-line only pass rushers.

A straight-line style is highly effective against a traditional pocket passer like Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. where the goal is to disrupt the passer rhythm as quickly as possible. It’s also tremendously valuable against a two-dimensional threat like Utah’s Cameron Rising, who possesses the pocket-like abilities of a Penix Jr. but also becomes a glorified straight-line running back with the football. A straight-line rush allows a straight-line runner to get sucked into a prepared run-stopping unit headlined by Muasau and his critical 67 tackles on the season.

Where the straight-line rush deeply struggles is when a quarterback shows non-linear mobility to extend a play, thereby delaying the decision of whether to throw or run. These were the traits exhibited by Oregon’s Bo Nix and Arizona’s Jayden De Laura, and non-coincidentally led to UCLA’s only two losses on the season.

As a result, both games followed an eerily similar script: the Bruin pass rush became largely ineffective and gassed into the second half, the linebackers lost all gap integrity with their assignments, and the secondary was overheated from repeatedly losing eventual one-on-one battles due to a lack of support from their front seven.

Both games resulted in defensive back Mo Osling III leading the team in tackles, thereby giving him the team lead on the season with 72.

Caleb Williams is significantly better than Nix and De Laura at this non-linear mobility and has made a living extending plays in the pocket, eventually allowing the superior athleticism of his receivers to win one-on-one matchups after 6-10 seconds.

Kelly must learn from this pattern and invoke a spy on Williams: an individual whose entire defensive assignment is simply to keep Williams contained in the pocket and make him feel rushed. Two players fit this mold athletically; players that are fast enough to chase Williams down in the open field, but also strong enough to not need help in getting him to the turf.

Those two are Jones Jr. and Vaughns. While the latter is a two-sport star for the Bruins, Vaughns’ versatility as a linebacker and powerful nickel corner will be imperative to try and slow down the potent Trojan receiving core of Jordan Addison, Mario Williams, Tahj Washington, and Kyle Ford.

Jones Jr. should get the assignment of making Williams more uncomfortable than he’s been all year because the one blemish on Caleb’s otherwise sterling canvas of skills is down-field accuracy. A spy is imperative because if Williams does not have a dedicated defender with the option to roam free and buy time, it will be hard for the 102nd-ranked Bruins’ pass defense to stop the Trojans even once on offense. I expect Kelly to subtly unleash his 007.

Verdict: Checkmate

The Bruins greatest strengths are the Trojans most harrowing weaknesses: run defense, linebackers in zone coverage due to sheer variety of underneath threats, and physical corners to body-up finesse Trojan receivers. Caleb Williams is certainly Superman, but Charbonnet is Batman and the San Gabriel Mountains will look like Gotham City at night’s end.

The game will be slightly lower scoring than people expect for two reasons: a.) both teams emphasize balance in their offense and that hunger to continually emphasize the run will consistently eat away at the clock, and b.) both teams know they need to protect their defenses as much as possible by limiting the number of possessions.

The Bruins will go back-to-back in the Victory Bell for the first time since 2014.

UCLA – 41, USC – 34

UCLA Bruins Running Back Zach Charbonnet. Photo Credit: Scott Chandler | UCLA Athletics
UCLA Bruins Running Back Zach Charbonnet. Photo Credit: Scott Chandler | UCLA Athletics