In a game that had more turns and twists than your quintessential high-gravity ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the Bruins ultimately prevailed 27-13 over those pesky Chanticleers. The aftermath of this topsy-turvy performance has left Bruin Nation with significantly more questions than answers. But one that is certain, Dante Moore is the unquestioned quarterback of today and tomorrow. Beyond the somewhat pedestrian 7/12 for 143 passing yards, two touchdowns, and one interception, it was “the when” more than “the what” for UCLA’s 18-year-old prodigy.
The when was desperately needed both at the end of the first half as well as the beginning of the fourth quarter…and Moore delivered each time. In a city littered with rich tapestries of clutch performers ranging from Magic to Mamba, Moore seems destined to be next. But for the stage to be set for its dynamic ending, the act had as many shifts of momentum as a Christopher Nolan rendition.
Chapter 1 – Garbers Runs Script
The game began right on script with Ethan Garbers as lead quarterback. Over the first 18 offensive plays, Garbers helped generate 150 yards of offense, highlighted by a 21-yard touchdown bullet down the left sideline to Carsen Ryan for the game’s opening drive touchdown. Chip Kelly was balanced in his play calling as Carson Steele ran for 52 of his 76 rushing yards during this time, while Garbers also got Kyle Ford involved on back-to-back plays totaling 39 yards for Ford’s only two receptions. The diagnosis from spring and fall camp was becoming evident: Garbers’ experience in Kelly’s system was a significant advantage.
Chapter 2 – Garbers Can’t Adjust
Then on the final play of the Bruins’ second drive…disaster struck. Garbers threw an interception in the middle of the end zone to Coastal Carolina’s Clayton Isbell amidst heavy traffic. Execute on that play and the Bruins are up 14-0 with an opportunity to run away with the game. Yet, that was the first significant turn of the contest as Coastal Carolina was able to settle down and methodically march 75 yards over 16 plays over six minutes and 33 seconds of game time to get a field goal and insert themselves back into the game statistically and emotionally.
Garbers’ next drive lacked the precision, confidence, and decisiveness of his previous two and yet another offseason trend revealed itself: Garbers’ consistency isn’t resilient to when the game goes off-script. The moment the game crossed the scripting threshold of the first 15-20 plays covering the inaugural two offensive drives, Garbers’ game never returned to form.
Chapter 3 – Dante Moore Delivers Dynamite
As the game was nearing halftime with the Bruins holding onto a 7-3 lead courtesy of sound run defense, but with energy dwindling and lethargy increasing, Kelly inserted Moore into the lineup. Dante served as a shot of Red Bull for the 43,705 in attendance as on his third offensive snap, he rolled to the right and found J. Michael Sturdivant on an electric, in-stride, deep cross 39-yard completion. Three plays later, Moore demonstrated a poise beyond his years, as he felt blindside pressure, moved up in the pocket to balance his hips parallel to Coastal Carolina’s front seven, froze the defense with eye manipulation suggesting a downfield attempt, and found Steele peripherally with a beautiful check-down for a 14-yard score down the far side pilon. 14-3 Bruins at the half with juice firmly back in the building.
Chapter 4 – Kelly’s Puzzling Decisions
The Garbers experiment should have been over at that point, and yet that brought us to the game’s next massive swing. Coastal Carolina used halftime preparation in textbook fashion, as Grayson McCall orchestrated their opening drive brilliantly for 75 yards over nine plays, highlighted by a spectacular nine-yard touchdown reception by Sam Pinckney shedding multiple Bruin defenders. At that point, the expectation was Moore would remain in the game, but Kelly chose to stick with Garbers, who once again was intercepted by Isbell at the Coastal Carolina 8-yard line and returned 29 yards.
Certainly puzzling, but an argument could be made that the sample size of the first half wasn’t great enough with Garbers only getting three offensive possessions. Kelly even alluded to that in his halftime remarks with the, “I hope you’re selling lots of commercials” line. What was even more perplexing was Garbers trotting BACK OUT for a fifth series after Jaylin Davies intercepted McCall in the red zone with the Bruins harrowingly close to losing the lead. Garbers subsequently going three-and-out essentially, if not for an unsportsmanlike conduct, left everyone pondering if this was going to be 2023’s South Alabama game, or even worse, its Arizona moment.
Chapter 5 – Dante Moore Reiterates Clutch Gene
Kelly was deeply fortunate that Coastal Carolina’s subsequent drive resulted in a missed field goal. The Chanticleers had two drives down 14-13 and came away with no points, courtesy of stout run defense and tenacious secondary play in timely moments. Kelly finally realized that five drives are enough of a sample to be statistically significant, inserted Moore back into the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and BANG…in one play, Moore finds Sturdivant for a sublime 62-yard inside slant dart where the ball was never more than 20 feet off the ground. Sturdivant strode smoothly into the endzone, unaffected by the peril from a falling defender, seemingly stunned the ball got there as quickly as it did. A collective exhale from the Rose Bowl crowd ensured what would have made Hurricane Hilary blush.
Chapter 6 – Polishing Off The Victory
Stretching the lead to eight completely changed Coastal Carolina’s offensive mindset, as the Chanticleers needed to take deeper drops in more pass-obvious situations. This resulted in the strength of Bruin defense, its pass rush, getting unleashed into its full form. Laiatu Latu obliged with two sacks as did Gabriel Murphy with a sack and forced fumble.
When McCall wasn’t getting sacked, he was feeling the footsteps of the ferocious Bruin front four, and that resulted in happier feet with more frantic, less accurate throws. John Humphrey was the greatest beneficiary with a beautifully body-controlled interception that all but sealed the game. Over the course of Carolina’s four fourth-quarter drives. The Bruin defense had three sacks and one interception, while only giving up 31 total yards over 12 plays, even easily withstanding a late Moore interception.
The Road Ahead
A lot more improvement is necessary heading into San Diego State, including running game clarity, offensive line depth, and linebacker spacing. But we definitively now know Dante Moore is the franchise quarterback, Sturdivant is the de-facto homerun hitter on the outside and Latu is dynamically spearheading a disruptive pass rush. And that’s significantly more clarity than this team had after its opener last year.