What Bruins Must Do Given Tinseltown’s Newest Riley

Jamal Madni
UCLA Closes Out Regular Season with Win Over California, 42-14

What Bruins Must Do Given Tinseltown’s Newest Riley

Three of the hardest words for a college football coach to prepare for: “the trap game.” When you’re dealing with 18–22-year-old kids, who just did things on a football field never seen in program history against their hated rivals, you constantly worry when their arms will finally rotate from patting themselves on the back to getting back to work. Kudos Chip Kelly, mission accomplished on having these Bruins meticulously ready to play. In fact, UCLA didn’t just avoid the Golden Bear trap, they simply devoured it.

Behind Zach Charbonnet’s eighth 100-yard game this season, the Bruins convincingly moved to 7-0 when Charbonnet runs for the century mark, in a comprehensive 42-14 win. Amidst a chilly senior night with a turkey defused 36,156 in attendance, Dorian Thompson-Robinson was precise and collected with his underneath throws as he completed 19 passes across four different receivers while having a season-high 102 yards rushing. DTR’s most spectacular throw was a gorgeous 29-yard TD fade over Greg Dulcich’s left shoulder to cap off the opening drive of the second half. Dulcich was able to gracefully get his right foot down in the end zone culminating a six-reception night for 86 yards.

The Bruins were a perfect 4/4 in the red zone in a seamlessly symmetric fashion. Two on the ground with a tough 1-yard TD up the middle by Charbonnet coupled with an 8-yard jet sweep TD courtesy of Kazmeir Allen late in the second quarter to give UCLA the lead once and for all. Two in the air to Kyle Philips on passes of four and six yards, respectively, that built upon a new wrinkle Chip Kelly has discovered from the USC game. Namely, multiple misdirections to set up short play-action passes in the red zone.

In fact, the only blip on an otherwise near-perfect performance for the Bruins was on back-to-back possessions midway through the second quarter. Down 10-0, Cal QB Chase Garbers was able to drop a near-perfect 26-yard throw to his favorite receiver, Nikko Remigio, on 3rd & 13 despite triple coverage. Cal was able to run for the remaining 52 yards on the drive across seven plays to make the score 10-7 Bruins. On the subsequent kickoff, Allen muffed his catch, Cal recovered on the UCLA 13 and was able to convert that into the endzone four plays later to take their only lead of the game. The Bruins pitched a shutout from there en route to their best statistical defensive performance since the home opener against Hawaii, limiting their older siblings from Berkeley to just 217 yards of total offense.

The intensity lasted until the final defensive snap of the game where the Bruins, firmly in garbage time up 42-14 late in the 4th, stuffed the Bears on a 4th & Goal at the one, denying any points on Cal’s 18-play, 74-yard drive that took over six minutes off the clock. It was a symbolic statement of their preparation, focus, and endurance to complete the job in a dominant fashion. The final three games of the season resulted in: a.) three consecutive wins, b.) three consecutive 40-point performances, and c.) three massive runs to close out the game with 37 unanswered against Colorado, 27 of the game final 34 points against USC, and 32 straight points against Cal.

From Confidence To Concern

Let’s not deny it Bruin Nation, the snowballing confidence from the momentum of a foundational year on Saturday night quickly changed to subtle concern by Sunday morning. In a jaw-dropping, tectonic-shifting turn of events, Lincoln Riley, one of college football’s five best coaches, accepted the job across town at USC. His staggering $110M contract also included the university buying his two homes in Oklahoma for $1M over the asking price, USC paying for his $6M home in Los Angeles, and the Rileys having unlimited access to the institution’s private jet.

Without question, a power move from the team across town, almost 40 years to the day another Riley accepted an iconic LA sports coaching job. It was November of 1981 when Pat Riley took over for beleaguered Paul Westhead six games into the 81-82 Laker season, due to Westhead’s eroding relationship with a disgruntled Magic Johnson over the style of the offense. What ensued was an era simply called “Showtime,” where the Lakers had a dizzying level of success with four titles and seven finals appearances in the next eight seasons. The Lakers solidified their standing in Los Angeles and have been one of the world’s true universal sports brands since.

It is with a similar sense of vision, grandeur, and bravado that Riley proclaimed the Los Angeles Coliseum will be the future “Mecca of college football.” Whether the Trojans return to a Pete Carroll level of glory will be delicious Hollywood theater, but one thing is certain: the Trojan gauntlet has been laid down and USC is all-in. The kind of all-in usually reserved for only Big Ten and SEC teams. To think this move doesn’t have any impact on UCLA football is outright delusional. But Bruin fans, it’s not a time for concession, rather for clarity. Here are five tangible, strategic, and bold actions Bruin football can make to counter-strike.

Step #1: Hire One Of These Defensive Coordinators

The Bruins averaged 36.5 points per game this season, which was 1st in the PAC-12. Furthermore, their 441.2 yards of total offense was good for 2nd in the PAC-12. Contrary to popular belief, Kelly hasn’t lost any offensive mojo and remains as strong a mind on that side of the ball as anyone else in college football. The problem was defensive, as the Bruins allowed 384.4 yards, which was only 6th in the conference, and their 26.8 points per game allowed was 8th. Simply put, this was an elite PAC-12 offense with a below-average defense. Even if the Bruins had an average defense in the top half of the conference, an 8-4 season could’ve been 10-2 or even 11-1.

Upon closer inspection, the Bruins gave up 40+ points in three of their four losses, and the unit was anemic by committee. Against Fresno State and Arizona State, the secondary got torched by the vertical pass game, and versus Utah, the front seven was steamrolled like highway roadkill by a mac truck. AD Martin Jarmond needs to provide Kelly a contract extension with the condition that defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro be replaced immediately. Furthermore, these three names would each be ideal complements to a Chip Kelly offensive attack.

Gary Patterson had a spectacular career-building TCU into national prominence. He had 181 victories, 11 bowl wins, and six Top-10 finishes highlighted by a 2011 Rose Bowl victory and a 2015 Peach Bowl triumph. Patterson turned a perennial doormat into a consistent national contender while dealing with the recruiting battles in talent-rich Texas. He did so with exceptional defensive units and would be an ideal defensive coordinator, culture builder, and physicality architect for the Bruins, while also serving as a possible coach-in-waiting if year five of the Kelly era doesn’t go according to plan.

Jimmy Lake, although unceremoniously getting fired from UW this season after only 13 games and never having coached an Apple Cup, still had three exceptional defensive coordinator seasons at UW under his belt. With Lake leading the defense, the Huskies had three consecutive 10-win seasons, two PAC-12 titles, one college football playoff berth along with a Rose and Fiesta Bowl appearance.  Lake’s biggest problem was recruiting elite talent but by no longer being the CEO of a program and simply focusing on one side of the ball, his true talents should be revealed yet again. It’s important to note, Lake did have an altercation with a player that led to him being suspended for a game closely prior to his firing, and that may be a character issue Jarmond may not see aligning with Bruin values.

That leads us to Justin Wilcox, who had tremendous success as Boise State’s defensive coordinator during their great BCS busting runs, and he was able to parlay that into subsequent defensive coordinator positions with positive stints at Tennessee, Washington, USC, and Wisconsin. Wilcox was presumably a front-runner to replace Lake and get the Washington job, but him being passed up so quickly in the process for Kalen DeBoer signifies his career possibly stalling as the head coach of Cal. Wilcox could use hitting the reset button back to the defensive coordinator to jumpstart his trajectory and what better place than a fellow PAC-12 and UC school.

Step #2: Hire One Of These Recruiting Coordinators

It’s no secret that Kelly isn’t exactly Barack Obama or George Clooney in a living room trying to charm a recruit and his family. Kelly’s lack of charisma and media savvy is ironically one of the main reasons he picked UCLA over Florida in 2017. If you lose a game in an SEC town with no other pro or college teams insight, it’s Armageddon for a week and Kelly would incessantly have to deal with overly dramatic doomsday hubris. But lose a game at UCLA, and you can still be relatively hidden when the Lakers, Dodgers, Rams, Chargers, and Trojans also share the city.

However, Kelly will now need to delegate his weaknesses and not simply avoid them. Riley’s 55-10 track record coupled with having produced two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks and a third as a finalist have already nabbed the Trojans, class of 2023 five-star QB Malachi Nelson, who, inside 48 hours, chose to follow Riley after his initial commitment to Oklahoma. Kelly and the Bruins will need to match that level of cache on the recruiting trail, so who better to hire than former Trojans Donte Williams or Ed Orgeron?

Williams is universally regarded as the west coast’s top recruiter and instrumental in enabling Oregon to pluck elite Southern California recruits like Kayvon Thibodeaux and Mycah Pittman. Williams was so successful recruiting SoCal for Oregon, given Los Angeles being his place of birth and his deep connections to the community college ecosystem as well, that USC was forced to strategically begin a campaign called “take back the west.” Their first step in doing so was pulling Williams away from Oregon and bringing him to USC. If Kelly and Jarmond are smart, they’ll make Williams a strong associate head coach and head of recruiting offer while Riley is distracted with filling out the rest of his staff. Williams wouldn’t have to move and gets to do what he does best while having the golden nugget of offering local athletes the chance to play close to home.

Orgeron was essentially Williams before Williams; he was instrumental in the plethora of recruiting success USC had in the Carroll era. While he certainly wasn’t sustainable head coach material (LSU’s 2019 national title was directly the result of passing coordinator Joe Brady as evidenced by Orgeron only going 11-11 since Brady’s departure for the Panthers), what recruits can resist “Coach O” as he flashes his LSU championship ring, shares stories of the Reggie Bush Trojans, and makes self-deprecating jokes about “sissy blue shirts” in that deep Cajun voice?

Plus, Orgeron or Williams would add an element of spice to the USC-UCLA rivalry that Kelly secretly would relish (see: two-point conversion attempt to get to a 50 piece in USC game).

Step #3: Win Bowl Game

This sounds trivial and obvious, but the Bruins have a tremendous opportunity to solidify and exponentially grow their momentum heading into the 2022 season with a strong bowl performance. As of right now, most have the Bruins projected to face either Michigan State or Penn State in the Las Vegas Bowl, with the possibility of NC State or even Clemson in the Holiday Bowl. An incredible platform against signature Power Five brands would give UCLA a Nitrous infusion to the program. Extra practices, national visibility, sponsorship opportunities, and most importantly, positive reinforcement for the players.

At the end of the day, lost in the stakes, shine, and stage of college football is that it’s a personal development environment for college kids. Whether it’s a sophomore history major or DTR, kids at this age relish off positive reinforcement. Success breeds success in offseason workouts, nutrition regimens, and film sessions. The power of a victorious bowl game carries a sense of confidence and self-efficacy for seven months until the subsequent fall’s kickoff.

In fact, the PAC-12’s last three truly successful teams: Stanford, Oregon, and Washington, all had bowl wins serve as a springboard to the following season’s achievement jump.

In 2014, Stanford went 7-5 with a strong showing in the Foster Farms Bowl that resulted in a 45-21 victory over Maryland that got the Cardinal to 8-5 and QB Kevin Hogan was game MVP. It set the stage for a magical 2015, where Hogan could complement the electrifying Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey, culminating in a 12-2 record and a Rose Bowl triumph over Iowa.

In 2015, Washington had an up-and-down 7-6 season, but their 44-31 victory over Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl laid the 2016 foundation for their 12-2 season that ended in the College Football Playoff.

In 2018, Oregon went 7-6 highlighted by a one-point victory over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl. That environment gave Justin Herbert a tutorial in high-pressure game management that ultimately enabled their 2019 season’s Rose Bowl run, where Herbert was MVP leading the Ducks to a pristine 12-2 record.

For those that say non-New Year’s Six Bowl games don’t matter…they can serve as “light bulb moments,” profoundly altering the confidence of key contributors for the following season.

Step #4: Become Data-Driven Football Operation

UCLA is ranked #20 in the 2021 US News & World Report rankings for America’s top colleges. The only universities ranked higher than UCLA with a D1 football program are Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame. These six institutions are in a unique position having to balance admissions requirements with recruiting needs.

For Stanford, Jim Harbaugh realized that the critical mass of student-athletes meeting Stanford’s rigorous admissions requirements were tight ends and linemen, as opposed to the uber-athletic receivers and running backs. Thus, he built The Cardinal around the slow-tempo and physical line of scrimmage play. For Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald built a model recognizing student-athletes he was chasing were students first in high school. Thus, his model was to redshirt just about every recruit, put them through Northwestern’s strength and conditioning programs, and ultimately transform them into viable contributors as upperclassmen. While Duke and Vanderbilt haven’t had any patterned success outside the occasional lower-tier bowl appearance, Notre Dame is a hyper-selective university for traditional students, but there is no baselined admissions requirement. it’s reliant on a holistic review, which allows a great deal of wiggle room for the athletics department when it comes to recruiting.

The NCAA eligibility requirements are a sliding scale of GPA and SAT scores, namely, the higher your GPA, the lower your SAT score needs to be. Most football student-athletes hover between a 2.3 GPA (which requires a 900 SAT) and 2.7 GPA (which requires a 740 SAT score). The UC, on the other hand, requires all students to have a minimum 3.0 GPA. Now, UC schools are allowed to have 20% of their recruiting class exempt from these requirements due to “extraordinary skills” but 80% of the recruiting class still needs a B average. Couple that with the UC abolishing the SAT in admissions, and there’s no opportunity for student-athletes to make up for poor grades with single solid test performance.

That’s all to say that UCLA has a nuanced challenge in recruiting and not every student-athlete can meet the grades for admission. Furthermore, a traditional “go wide” recruiting approach doesn’t suffice. While Kelly is extremely scientific in his approach to player diet, sleep, and exercise circuits, Jarmond and Kelly need to be at the forefront of the data analytics revolution for recruiting. Understanding which high schools, regions, and coaches produce the highest academically performing student-athletes, finding optimal correlations between on-field and in-classroom performance across the country, and predicting classroom success of underclassmen high school recruits, are all data-driven approaches UCLA must take. By strategically placing the recruiting team in higher-performing areas, Bruin football can “get their guy” often.

They need to use the Warriors, Rockets, A’s, Red Sox, Giants, and Dodgers as case studies of beefing up an analytics arm to equip them with the necessary insights to find more hidden gems.

Step #5: Sell UCLA’s Unique Value Proposition

The last piece of the puzzle is to sell recruits, parents, coordinators, donors, boosters, and sponsors on why UCLA is such a uniquely special investment. It’s one of the most treasured institutions in college football due to the “three S’s” of Bruin football.

Stability: Lost in the euphoria and ecstasy of the Riley hire is that there was a 38-year-old coach born in West Texas and spent all but four years of his life in the Texoma region of the country. He was the head coach of the preeminent football brand in that region and it took a grand total of a 60-minute Zoom pitch for him to decide to jump ship to USC without even soliciting a counteroffer from OU. Is USC’s brand THAT powerful? I’m sure members of the Trojan Family would like to think so but OU is just as good a job. Was the money THAT good? Not really considering he was making $7.5M in Oklahoma with the opportunity to renegotiate, and from a purchasing power standpoint, $7.5M in Oklahoma goes WAY farther than $11M in Los Angeles.

But the reality is Riley was unhappy with OU’s impending move to the SEC in two years. Gone was a clear path to the playoff, inevitably having to slog week in and week out with the Georgia’s, LSUs, Alabama’s, and Texas A&Ms of the world. Riley sees his contemporaries being Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Kliff Kingsbury, and Matt LaFleur. Ultimately, Riley’s ambition and restlessness will send him to the NFL and Riley was simply waiting for the appropriate exit strategy from OU to get there. In the interim, a lateral job outside the SEC popped up, enabling Riley to add “program revitalizer” to his resume before ultimately going to the pros.

Riley is a surgical strategist for maximizing his career growth. The shocking suddenness and robotic coldness with which he left OU is exactly what he will do to USC in no more than four years. When Mike McCarthy inevitably fails with the Dallas Cowboys in the next two, three, or four years, Riley’s dream job will open, and when it does…GONE. That’s what happens when you swing for the fences in today’s royalty-free college football coaching world, you hit a grand slam temporarily but inevitably will get burned.

When Riley looks at a recruit or his parents in the eye and says, “I’ll be here as long as your son is here to protect, challenge, and stretch him,” it’s hard to believe. But when Kelly and his staff say that it must come from a place of integrity, honesty, and character. That’s why Bruin Nation must rally around Kelly and take the stance of being the consistent stable option in Los Angeles amidst the roller coaster peaks and valleys that will inevitably be USC football. After all, Riley is the Trojans’ sixth coach in the last 12 years.

Social Justice: The world has profoundly changed during COVID-19, particularly around racial awareness with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Many top recruits in basketball chose to attend historically black colleges & universities (HBCUs) to get more intimate with the origins of their culture. UCLA has an unparalleled history of social justice with athlete activists such as Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul Jabber, Ann Meyers Drysdale, and Rafer Johnson.

Many institutions talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but the Bruins truly live it. For the first time in program history, they will have two games against HBCU opponents in 2022 (Alabama State & South Alabama). The Bruins are showcasing how football is more than just a game for the institution, rather a platform to create awareness around deeper societal issues. UCLA is a symbol that speaks to the student-athlete, who not only cares about the score on the field but the unending score of life. That ethos will resonate with the right fit of football partners.

Success Beyond The Field: For most football recruits that won’t have a multi-million-dollar career in the NFL, UCLA is a special place to grow professionally off the field. Chase Griffin is a budding social entrepreneur with several NIL sponsorships and was recently selected to the inaugural LinkedIn Career Accelerator Program. Bruin basketball player Myles Johnson interned at Intel over this past summer and Tyger Campbell launched his own cryptocurrency. Jarmond and Kelly must sell that UCLA is a place for growing the entire person, not just the athlete.

Bias Towards Action

Even if it only has a four-year shelf life, Lincoln Riley to USC tectonically changes college football in Los Angeles, the West Coast, and the nation. It’s going to be theatric fireworks bundled with the expectation of USC’s inevitable 12th national championship. Only three coaches have ever made three College Football Playoff appearances: Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and Riley.

In the weeks to come, waves of blue-chip Southern California recruits will flood to don the cardinal and gold of USC. But Bruin fans, this is not a time for UCLA to deridingly attack, but decisively act. For failure to act is paramount to conceding with a white flag. As the Wizard of Westwood himself said, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

UCLA Closes Out Regular Season with Win Over California, 42-14 – Ross Turteltaub