UCLA Football and The Case For Hope
Fans of UCLA Football would not be remiss in assuming the Pac 12 opener in Pullman, Washington would be a painful affair. The Bruins started the season 0-3 for the second straight year, losing to Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Oklahoma on consecutive weekends. It would also be little consolation that UCLA’s preseason opponents are a combined 8-2. For many, the glamour of Chip Kelly taking the helm in Westwood had been a mirage, leaving behind an arguably worse version of the final two Jim Mora teams that went 6-11 overall.
And yet, some hope remained. UCLA increased its offensive production in every preseason game, from a woeful 218 yards against Cincinnati (including a dreadful 62 total rushing yards), to 261 yards against San Diego State, to 311 yards against Oklahoma, likely the toughest opponent UCLA will face in 2019. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, after an absymal four-turnover start against Cincinnati, managed a 125.8 passer rating against SDSU, and a 132 passer rating against Oklahoma. UCLA also ended the preseason improved in essentially every statistical defensive category compared to 2018, be it passing yards per attempt, rushing yards per attempt, points per play, or sack rate. Suffice to say, if one dug hard enough, there were at least some needles in the titanic haystack.
Washington State: Pac 12 After Dark Rears Its Glorious Head
Enter the Washington State Cougars. Under Mike Leach, the Cougars have gone from a cellar dweller that won a combined five games in the 2008, ’09, and ’10 seasons, to a legitimate national contender, winning 37 games in the last four seasons. They entered the game against UCLA as, yet again, one of the best passing teams in the nation, running Leach’s air raid offense like a well-oiled machine. A tough matchup for any opponent, they seemed especially well-matched against the Bruins, who while much improved in run defense, have only improved marginally in pass defense, and had not yet found their footing offensively. Many expected the night to be a lot of three-and-out drives for UCLA, and an explosive Cougars attack pulling apart a vulnerable Bruin defense.
The first half seemed to confirm UCLA fans’ worst fears. Despite taking the lead after an early mistake by Cougar QB Anthony Gordon, UCLA failed to capitalize on numerous drives and sustain any sort of momentum. Washington State struck back, hitting receivers on both mid and long range throws, with a Quentin Lake-less Bruin defense almost helpless to stop them. In the second quarter alone, the Cougars dropped 28 points, going into halftime up 35-17. Again, Bruin fans can be forgiven for turning off their TVs, anticipating another agonizing blowout.
But still, there were moments of light in the darkness. UCLA finished the half with 17 points, eclipsing its totals in each of its three preseason games. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, while making some costly mistakes, was hitting some receivers in stride and UCLA showed it was capable of some explosive plays. But the defense had to step up, the offense had to settle down, and both sides needed to play fundamental football.
And it was with fundamental play that UCLA won in the Palouse. Roaring back to life in the second half, UCLA abandoned most of its power concepts, the ones Coach Kelly has been painstakingly trying to install to combat losses to bigger SEC schools, and reverted to the spread that Kelly had made so famous. The line began to give Dorian Thompson-Robinson time to throw, allowing him to find open men like Demetric Felton (150 yards on 7 receptions, 2 TDs) and Chase Cota (147 yards on 4 receptions, 1 TD), allowing UCLA to eat up chunks of yardage against a reasonably capable pass defense. And the steady hand of Joshua Kelley bought key yardage when his number was called, despite never quite reaching the heights of his 2018 season. But it was the Bruin defense that won the day, forcing six turnovers, four in the second half alone, including causing three absolutely pivotal fumbles, the first at the end of the third quarter allowing UCLA to come within three, the second with 2:27 left in the game to allow UCLA to pull ahead 67-63, and the last to ice the game by ending the Cougars’ final drive. And it was none other than Keisean Lucier-South, a veritable prodigal son, who had sat out most of Spring camp, all of Fall camp, and the entire preseason, who forced the game-winning giveaway. Pac 12 After Dark never dreamed of this.
Is the Long Night Over?
The question on most Bruins’ mind, after coming down from the high of what might be the single greatest UCLA Football game ever, is “Are we there yet?” The answer will please none. I would love to tell the Diehards that, as in Game of Thrones, (SPOILER ALERT) the Long Night has ended, the Night King has fallen, and Jon and Daenerys will rule the Seven Kingdoms as King and Queen (or whatever the UCLA Football equivalent of that may be). Alas, I cannot foretell such a happy ending. UCLA made numerous mistakes during the game, including Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s two costly turnovers and several missed throws that would have resulted in scores. UCLA’s offensive line, while excellent in the second half, was not very effective, especially in the run game, all first half. Joshua Kelley ran 20 times against a porous run defense, and only managed 90 yards. And on defense, UCLA allowed an astonishing 720 yards of offense, including a jaw-dropping nine passing TDs. Washington State had seven receivers go for 60 yards or more. Until the second half, UCLA generated little pressure, even when blitzing. Last but not least, missed tackles were omnipresent, extending several drives that could have been cut short. In short, Daenerys burned King’s Landing and everyone in it, and Jon stabbed her beneath the Iron Throne.
All of those hard truths will remain when UCLA travels to face Arizona next Saturday. And yet, there is cause for hope amid the ruins of West(wood)eros. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked as good as he has in his UCLA career in the second half, throwing for four touchdowns and running in two, while displaying excellent pocket presence and running for huge yardage when it was available. UCLA’s defense, after allowing five first-half touchdowns, forced four fumbles and two punts in the Cougars’ 10 drives. The Bruin offensive line looked as good as it had all season, and UCLA finally generated pressure, without sending a large amount of blitzes. And last but not least, Demetric Felton looked like an All American, accounting for three touchdowns and more than 300 all-purpose yards.
Suffice to say, if UCLA can continue to develop its strengths (DTR being a capable dual-threat, special teams being a home-run possibility on every play, spreading out teams and tiring them out), and improve its weaknesses (continuing to generate pass rush, playing better pass defense, running the football with greater effectiveness, providing Thompson-Robinson additional time), the Bruins will have a very successful final 8 games of the season.
Surely, to reach the heights Bruins fans were imagining when Kelly was first hired, Thompson-Robinson will need to build on his success in the second half, step up into the pocket and run when the lanes are there. Demetric Felton will have to continue to be an offensive and special teams home-run threat, and Kelley will need to continue being his steady, reliable self. And the defense will need to continue playing like they are on fire. There will certainly be bumps in the road, as progress is not linear, and life is neither a fairytale nor a horror novel. But to paraphrase Alexander Pope, “Hope springs eternal in the hearts of [UCLA football fans].” And now, maybe it’s justified.