UCLA Wins Battle Of The Backups

Kevin Sumlin’s return to the Rose Bowl stadium did not finish any better for him than the previous stop. Thirteen months ago, UCLA beat Sumlin’s Texas A&M Aggies in one of the epic comebacks in college football history. Saturday, it was a more routine 31-30 win for the Bruins over Sumlin’s Arizona Wildcats.

UCLA Wins Battle Of The Backups

Neither team had it easy. Arizona went into the game knowing it would play without injured starting quarterback Khalil Tate. He was replaced by Rhett Rodriguez, the son of the coach Sumlin replaced in Tucson.  UCLA on the other hand lost their starting quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, in the second quarter to an unspecified right arm injury. That left it to grad transfer Wilton Speight to step in and re-secure the lead and the win. Speight had been the starter in week one, until he was knocked out with a back injury. He had not played since.

Not much of it was pretty at the start, regardless of who was taking the snaps from center. UCLA was penalized early and often. A team that showed great discipline in the Cal game last week was flagged 12 times for 103 yards Saturday night, including a motion penalty on their very first play from scrimmage.

Still, Thompson-Robinson led them on a 62-yard first quarter scoring drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to running back Kazmeir Allen. The offense was more than a little disjointed as there were motion penalties, an illegal forward pass from Thompson-Robinson and some missed blocking assignments. Thompson-Robinson was keeping plays alive with his mobility. His continuing progression of seeing plays develop and not taking sacks was evident.

Arizona mounted a viable first quarter drive on the running of J.J. Taylor. He had 21 yards on the drive and Rodriguez had a 33-yard completion to Shawn Poindexter. But Rodriquez’ 18-yard pass into the end zone was picked off by Quentin Lake.

UCLA added a 40-yard J.J. Molson field goal on the first play of the second quarter and had a 10-0 lead.

With 10 minutes left in the second quarter Thompson-Robinson scrambled to his left but was brought down from behind by Colin Schooler. The tackle appeared to drive Thompson-Robinson’s right shoulder into the ground, but he also appeared to fall awkwardly on his right arm. Typically, no injury report is available until further tests are run. Thompson-Robinson did show mobility in his shoulder on the sidelines but was taken to the locker room for tests and then spent the rest of the game on the bench after going 5-8 for 103 yards and the one touchdown.

Speight’s first play after coming in was an incompletion to Demetric Felton, and the Bruins had to punt. He would return to the field quickly after a stunning play by defensive back Darnay Holmes. Arizona’s Taylor took the hand-off at his own 44-yard line, quickly bolted through UCLA’s front seven and was off to the races along the right sideline seemingly by himself. Holmes chased him down at the five-yard yard line, jabbed the ball out from behind and then sprinted into the end zone to recover the fumble.

Even with that bolt of energy, Speight struggled, and the Bruins had a three-and-out. Arizona finally took advantage of UCLA’s inability to move the ball now. Rodriquez connected to Poindexter on a 13-yard touchdown pass and the Bruins lead was down to 10-7.

UCLA’s offense leaned on what has become the reliable factor the last four weeks. In the next series running back Joshua Kelley had four carries for 18 yards and two pass receptions for another 15 yards. Kelley would finish the game with 31 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown. He now has four consecutive 100+ rushing games. Speight had an additional three completions on the drive. The big one was a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Devin Asiasi that gave UCLA its 17-7 halftime lead.

UCLA Wins Battle Of The Backups
UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi hauls in a touchdown pass against the Arizona Wildcats at the Rose Bowl Saturday night. (Photo courtesy AP/Mark J. Terrill)

If that was the sign that the UCLA offense would not miss a beat without Thompson-Robinson in the second half, it was a misread. The Bruins went three-and-out in their first series of the second half. Arizona turned that into a 29-yard field goal that made it 17-10 Bruins.

One play into its next possession, Speight was sacked and fumbled the ball on his way down. The Wildcats recovered at the Bruins’ 15-yard line. Two plays later they tied it at 17 with a Rodriguez to Poindexter touchdown pass. They would add another field goal later in the quarter for the 20-17 lead and the air was all but sucked out of the homecoming crowd. UCLA had all of 28 yards of offense in the second half at this point and their recently ordained leader was sitting by himself on the end of the bench looking downcast.

It didn’t take long for Speight to lift the collective spirits of Bruins fans. In fact five plays is all it took. A couple of Kelley rushes, a completion to Theo Howard, another to Caleb Wilson and then a 25-yard completion to Felton overt the middle, with Felton running through a defensive back at the goal line, and UCLA had the lead back at 24-20.

UCLA Wins Battle Of The Backups
UCLA receiver Demetric Felton celebrates his touchdown catch versus the Arizona Wildcats Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. (Photo courtesy AP/Mark J. Terrill).

Arizona would take the lead back briefly in the fourth quarter behind Taylor’s rushing, (19 carries for 154 yards and one touchdown on the night). His one-yard touchdown run gave the Wildcats a 27-24 lead early the fourth quarter.

No panic in the Bruins offense. It was about trusting the process. A couple of Speight completions, an Arizona horse collar penalty, and then Kelly’s 28-yard touchdown run capped a 75-yard, 4 play drive. It took all of 1:01 for the Bruins to get the lead back for good at 31-27. Arizona would add a field goal, but UCLA had enough Kelley to run out the clock at the end. Speight finished the night a highly respectable 17 of 27 for 204 yards and two touchdowns.

So now what? The Bruins have two straight wins, are 2-2 in conference and 2-5 overall. Strangely enough they are tied for third in the Pac 12 South with Colorado. They still have games left against the two teams ahead of them in the division standings, so….ok, that is just blogger fodder. What is next are further tests on Thompson-Robinson’s right arm/shoulder to determine the full extent of the injury and his availability going forward. What we learn during the week on that issue will likely be very limited. The Bruins have a short week as they host division-leading Utah Friday night.

The offensive look will likely be a game-time “announcement” as far as the fans are concerned. While head coach Chip Kelly had enough confidence to name Speight the starter in week one, it was based on his game management experience. The offense is and must be different with him at quarterback. Despite his obvious skills that he showed Saturday night, he does not possess the same pocket mobility that Thompson-Robinson does. UCLA has found it does have enough of Howard, Wilson and Kelley to give him viable options to work with.




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