We’re over the moral victories. That’s what the 2020 season was all about. It’s why there was a daily sign on top of the weight room during spring and summer workouts that read “16.” That was the combined number of points UCLA lost all their games by in the 2020 season. 16 points from a perfect season. But after a 7-17 opening to the Chip Kelly Westwood era, last year was all about “learning how to win” and “building a winning culture.” Those cobwebs were cleared for ACTUAL wins this season. All the game experiences, all the returning starters, all the system familiarity…had to translate to victories, right?
The stage was set last week for showcasing the reemergence of Bruin football to a national audience, and remind everyone, there was the potential for a 3rd iconic football brand out west. AD Martin Jarmond did a spectacular job orchestrating the pregame GameDay festivities outside Wilson Plaza, accompanied with acclaimed shoutouts of his young tenure by Kirk Herbstreit. Even Bill Walton behaved, looking lucid and credible in a way he consistently hadn’t been since his NBA on NBC days in the early 2000s.
The contest ended up being a tale of three games. In the first, the Bruins jumped out to a 14-0 lead courtesy of balanced play-calling, a blocked punt, and keeping Oregon superstar Kayvon Thibodeaux out of rhythm by forcing him to defend wheel routes, including a beautiful Dorian Thompson-Robinson strike to Keegan Jones for 20 yards.
The next two quarters were 34-3 Oregon as the Bruins were unable to generate consistent rushing yards due to the Ducks putting an additional man in the box. Lots of long 2nd and 3rd down situations led to only a field goal, a missed field goal (sort of), a dropped punt, and a blown short field after an Oregon fumble. Thibodeaux settled into his usual role as college football’s preeminent game wrecker and Anthony Brown looked as comfortable and sharp as he has all season, courtesy of the Bruin defensive secondary giving up their usual chunk plays coupled with very little defensive line pressure.
But Brown is who we thought he was, and his back-to-back interceptions led a frantic UCLA comeback courtesy of the sheer toughness, improvisational brilliance, and backyard instincts of DTR. Ultimately that erratic, high-risk, sandlot brand of football was unsustainable on two fronts: DTR was knocked out on the game’s potential winning series and backup Ethan Garbers, while showing flashes of brilliance, threw a game-ending interception, staring down Phillips on a read.
A potential 6-2 season and 4-1 conference record with a clear path to a PAC-12 South title is now a convoluted picture of potential mediocrity.
5-0 versus 0-3
The Bruins are two teams melded into one. They’re a 5-0 team at their best and an 0-3 team at their worst. This 2021 version is a case study in dual personality: the PAC-12’s equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde. In fact, there are four underlying statistics that reveal just how measurably polarizing this team’s performance can be.
The Charbonnet Century & Downtown Brown
The Bruins are 5-0 when Zach Charbonnet gets to 100+ yards rushing and 0-3 when he doesn’t. Charbonnet is the offensive engine of this team; when he’s able to finish runs through contact, bruise through and bounce off would-be-tackers to ultimately wear down an opposing front physically and mentally, the Bruins are a top 10 rushing offense nationally. When he’s bottled up and unable to impose his brand of ground game physicality between the tackles, the Bruins are barely an FBS bowl team, forced to overly throw with an inherently flawed passing game.
Furthermore, that exact same split holds for Brittain Brown’s yards per carry. The Bruins are 5-0 when Brown has a 3.6+ yards per carry, and 0-3 when he’s 3.5 and under. Brown is a smooth downhill runner, akin to the string of running back products from the late 90s and early 2000s Mike Shanahan-led Denver Broncos zone-read running game. Brown doesn’t have the tackle-breaking tenacity of a Joshua Kelley or the perimeter dynamism of a Demetric Felton; he’s a smooth, disciplined runner that takes what the defense gives him. Even when Charbonnet can scrap for hidden yards with defenders draped all over him, Brown’s yards per carry is the true EKG diagnostic measure of the Bruin running game heartbeat.
30 for 30: A Story of Bruin Defense
When the Bruins are unable to run the ball effectively, it prevents them from controlling the clock and tempo, which in turn exposes their gambling defense to be on the field longer than they can sustain. The Bruins are 5-0 when the defense holds opponents to under 30 points per game, and 0-3 when the defense allows 30+. When the Bruins are forced into a shootout, that forces them to score often. Scoring often means scoring QUICKLY; you can’t score a lot of points when you have 7–8-minute drives even if you’re scoring on every drive.
Scoring quickly means the running game must be abandoned for greater chunk plays, and the defense will inevitably be out there for longer amounts of time and plays. Whether the fight song is on repeat, or punter Luke Akers is getting a glorified NFL tryout, it means the defense better have that last sip of Gatorade and strap up to be out there yet again. Ultimately, when you play enough blackjack or poker, the house always wins. The Bruin defense has a fixed number of hands, beyond that, submission is inevitable.
Can’t Use a Phillips for Everything
Kyle Phillips has had a tremendous season leading the Bruins in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. In fact, there’s a good chance he’ll end up as UCLA’s all-time leading receiver when #2 hangs up his powder blue and gold uniform, hopefully at the end of the 2022 season. Thus, it’s bafflingly ironic that the Bruins are 5-0 when their best outside playmaker has less than 6 catches in a game, and 0-3 when he has 6+ receptions in a contest. But, upon closer inspection, it makes perfect Beautiful Mind mathematical sense. DTR targets Phillips every time he’s in a jam, it’s the Gronk to his Brady, the Harrison to his Manning, the Rice to his Montana. Phillips is the trusted, sure-handed, precision route runner that gets the game’s essential yards.
The Bruins are at their best when DTR is getting multiple receivers involved off play-action. When Phillips is targeted extensively, it means the Bruins must throw, not they want to throw. Phillips’ usage rate is tied to game desperation…the more urgent the situation, the more the ball goes to Phillips. The Bruins are no longer playing the game from a place of choice and strategic intent, rather, the game is playing them through stress and a lack of optionality.
All in all, it makes for the perfectly coherent, Anti-Disney story: Bruins lose when they can’t run the ball, thus their defense wears down due to the number of plays being on the field, and then they’re forced to throw recklessly and obviously to stay in a game when they’re not inherently equipped to do so.
Ute Better Believe It
Utah has been a different team since the insertion of Cameron Rising late in the 3rd quarter of their third game of the season against San Diego State. The Utes won three consecutive Rising starts, including impressive demolitions of the two PAC-12 South preseason title favorites, USC and ASU, until finally come down to earth last week in Corvallis. The Utes have always been a min-Stanford, tremendous line play, a strong running game with the involvement of tight ends and slot receivers as their main aerial choices.
This year is no different as the Utes bread and butter passing game involves tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, along with slot receiver Britain Covey. Given Utah’s propensity for the underneath routes, the beleaguered UCLA secondary shouldn’t get too exposed from the lack of verticality of these primary weapons. Where the Bruins need to worry is susceptibility to the home run threats Devaughn Vele and former Bruin Theo Howard, off consistently running the ball with running back Tavion Thomas.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bruins catch a major break with stud Ute linebacker and leading tackler, Devin Lloyd, suspended for the first half after being flagged for targeting the prior week against Oregon State. Llyod is a Thibodeaux-like game-changer defensively, and with his absence, look for the Bruins to establish their running game, build a lead, and hopefully manage the game into the second half withstanding Lloyd’s return.
The ultimate swing game for the Bruin season is upon us. Win, and the Bruins go to 6-3, sole possession of 2nd place in the PAC-12 South, still with an opportunity at a division crown. Lose, and it’s 5-4 with the existential feeling of trying to make sense from a completely mediocre season. We’ll find out if the 5-0 or 0-3 Bruins boarded the flight to Salt Lake City.