Well, it certainly wasn’t a work of art, but the UCLA Bruins 25-17 triumph over the Cougars of Washington State demonstrated two certainties: a.) hard-nosed defense with pro-style schemes and variation that limited an attack with arguably the hottest signal caller in the country coming into Saturday, to a mere 216 yards, and b.) the Bruins are still in contention with everything to play for.
Here are five takeaways from UCLA vs. Washington State:
Tight End Impact
It was clear that Chip Kelly needed to bring his tight ends more into the fold given the offensive line challenges. Message received, as Moliki Matavao, Hudson Habermehl, and Carson Ryan combined for six catches for 160 yards while also enabling the Bruins to run more max protection formations. The offense looked more like 2021 and 2022 with tighter formations, more limited quarterback reads, and an emphasis on the underneath passing game.
In fact, each of the Bruins’ first three scoring drives resulted in significant contributions by the tight end. A 27-yard completion by Dante Moore to Ryan down the tight sideline on third and three ultimately led to the Bruins first touchdown and a 6-3 lead. A 29-yard connection in traffic to Matavao immediately after the Alex Johnson interception pushed UCLA’s lead to 9-3.
And another first play of the drive highlight: this instant being a 27-yard needle-in-the-haystack type precision throw to Matavao right before getting sandwiched by two Cougar defenders, on a beautiful Moore rollout, that ultimately enabled the Bruins to momentarily regain scoreboard control at 12-10.
PAC-12’s Most Dominant Defense
This was the story of the game as the Bruins stifled Cougars quarterback Cam Ward. Holding him to just 197 passing yards on an under 50% completion rate, forced four turnovers while garnering three sacks and six tackles for loss. It seemed as if Ward was under duress all day, unable to get any rhythm while trying to circuitously buy time with a Bruins pass rush that disguised pressure from all angles. The Cougars ended with a paltry 12 yards rushing on 19 carries while suffering through a painstaking 2-13 on third down.
On the few instances, Ward was able to actually have a clear line of sight through the pass rush and get his throws off, Johnson and Oluwafemi Oladejo humored the dark house Heisman candidate with momentum-crushing interceptions.
The key matchup of UCLA vs. Washington State was if the Bruins front seven would get to Ward quickly enough to prevent his trio of receivers from exploiting UCLA’s secondary. In fact, outside of the 2022 instance of the Victory Bell game, this was the most talented skill position group on the outside the Bruins had faced since hosting Michael Penix and his band of Washington Huskies NFL quality wide receivers last October.
This Bruin defense did not need any help holding off a furious rally from a potent offense like last year. UCLA was simply dominant for 60 minutes and is quietly the best defense inside college football’s deepest conference.
Thunder & Unexpected Lightning
The other matchup expectation going into Saturday was Carson Steele’s ability to soften, bruise, and batter this undersized Cougars front, which would subsequently allow TJ Harden to pop off some home run gashes.
The first half of that script went clockwork as Steele’s iron man 30 carries for 140 tough inside yards delivered the requisite body blows on the Cougar defense, stabilized the Bruins often inconsistent offense, and ensured UCLA’s triumph in the all-important time of possession battle. In fact, Steele’s 30 rushing attempts were the most by a Bruin since Joshua Kelley’s 40 iconic touches in the 2018 battle for the Victory Bell.
The second half of that game plan is where the unexpected arrived. For it wasn’t Harden, rather, the seemingly forgotten Keegan Jones that delivered those critical big plays. Jones’ three rushes for 45 yards, including back-to-back mirror image touchdown runs of 13 and 22 yards respectively is what turned the five-point deficit into an eight-point cushion. Jones brought a unique ability to separate from physically spent Cougar linebackers with his world-class speed and visionary angles.
A key moment in the game was Jones’ first zone touch alongside the offensive line’s right side that led to a first down. With 26 seconds left in the third quarter and the Bruins trailing 17-12, the play was reviewed to ensure Jones didn’t fumble before his knee touched the ground.
The delay to confirm that decision enabled Chip Kelly to suddenly change the game’s pace and run two more plays prior to the beginning of the fourth quarter. UCLA was subsequently threatening immediately at the start of the quarter with regained momentum.
Moore Ups & Downs
There was good, bad, and ugly yesterday from 18-year-old prodigy Dante Moore. There was the interception on his third snap where he locked his eyes, then the inexplicable 88-yard pick-six on a one-read throw to the flat without enough air which instantly transformed a probable 12-3 lead to a 10-9 deficit at the end of the first half, and the pocket tentativeness in the face of blitzes that led to four sacks and countless quarterback pressures.
But there were two critical plays where Moore executed flawlessly in pressure situations that ultimately set the stage for Jones’ heroic runs. The first was UCLA’s fourth and six at the start of the fourth quarter with the Bruins trailing 17-12. Moore stood in the face of a crowded pocket, went through his progressions decisively, and found Kam Brown on an underneath 12-yard pass down the left sideline.
On the very next possession with the Bruins clinging to an 18-17 advantage, Moore again went through his progressions and improvised beautifully on third and six to scramble up the middle for 10 yards. There’s nothing like on-the-job training and we’re watching this teenager grow up right before our very eyes with each successful clutch moment.
Everything Still In Play
Was this an ugly performance? No question. Was it disappointing to see a lack of continuity, comfort, and preparation coming off a bye? Absolutely. Was this game painful at times especially with the boo birds flying after UCLA’s second consecutive three and out after halftime? No kidding.
But despite it all, the Bruins are 4-1 with an opportunity next week in Corvallis to seize a memorable season. Win that game and UCLA will be favored in each of their following four games as opportunities to consistently and methodically develop Moore and this offense, on the road to USC for a berth in the PAC-12 title game.
If college football history has taught us anything about hostile road environments: defense travels. Fortunately, these Bruins have the best unit on that side of the ball west of the Mississippi, armed with an NFL coordinator who’s bringing pro-style variation, disguises, and timing that’s disrupting the somewhat rudimentary college offenses they’re going up against.