UCLA Not Ready For Prime Time

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If a season opener is supposed to give you a sense of what happened in training camp, the most obvious thing you can say about week one for UCLA, is that little of what reportedly happened during the Fall camp was actually true. A 24-14 loss at Cincinnati Thursday night on national television showed UCLA was not ready for prime time.

UCLA Not Ready For Prime Time

Start with health. A team that allegedly came out of camp in great health, was anything but. Tyree Thompson was the only starter proclaimed to be missing the game due to injury when camp broke last week. Yet star running back Joshua Kelley never left the sidelines, even as the top back on the depth chart released this week. The Bruins are supposed to be deep at the position. But Martell Irby played only a handful of downs with no carries until the last six minutes of the game. Kazmier Allen was left home. Instead, it was 5-8, 180-pound receiver Demetric Felton carrying the load in the backfield. Senior wide receiver Theo Howard did not play. Starting guard Michael Alves did not travel with the team because of a new back injury. Starting defensive back Darnay Holmes is now suffering from an ankle injury and did not play.

The part about the defensive line ready to apply more pressure to the opposing quarterbacks? Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder had all the time he wanted all night. A defense that had only 11 sacks all last season had one Thursday night.

And then there was the play of sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The on-field readiness UCLA fans were hoping for was still not there. Thompson was eight of 26 passing with two fumbles and two interceptions. He threw for 156 yards and two touchdowns. But 75 of those yards were on one play. UCLA managed only 218 yards of total offense.

Close On The Board

The Bruins started off well enough. Relying heavily on Felton carrying the ball, they got deep into Cincinnati territory. Thompson-Robinson fumbled the ball without even being hit, and the Bearcats took over at their own eight-yard line. Ridder hit Alec Pierce with a 52-yard completion over Elijah Gates. He then found Josiah Deguara in the flat for a touchdown and the 7-0 lead that they would never lose.

Ridder picked apart the UCLA man-to-man defense with intermediate passes all night. The Bearcats would add a 44-yard field goal early in the second quarter for a 10-0 lead.

UCLA Not Ready For Prime Time
CINCINNATI, OH – AUGUST 29: Desmond Ridder #9 of the Cincinnati Bearcats throws the ball during the game against the UCLA Bruins at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Ridder had such an easy time finding the underneath receivers all night, Cincinnati never needed to tempt fate by going deep. He finished the night 18 of 26 for 242 and two touchdowns. The Bearcats would combine for 417 total yards. Running back Michael Warren II had a subpar game by his standards with 95 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

Even with that ease of movement of the Cincinnati offense, UCLA stayed in the game on the scoreboard if not in the on-field performance.

On third and 10 from his own 25-yard line yard, Thompson-Robinson rolled to his right and found Felton in the flat. Once Felton broke through two tackles, he was gone for a 75-yard touchdown play. The Bearcats lead was down to 10-7.

UCLA Not Ready For Prime Time
CINCINNATI, OH – AUGUST 29: Demetric Felton #10 of the UCLA Bruins runs the ball for a second quarter touchdown during the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Cincinnati’s Gerrid Doaks fumbled on the next possession and it was recovered by UCLA linebacker Hayden Harris. But more ineffectiveness by Thompson-Robinson killed the Bruins hopes of taking advantage of the turnover.

The Bearcats were in position for a decisive touchdown drive late in the second quarter. From his own three-yard line, Ridder rolled to his left and had Deguara at the goal line. But defensive back Jay Shaw stepped in front of the big tight end and intercepted the pass and raced down the right sideline for 65 yards. But Shaw was also called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. And then Thompson was swallowed up in the pocket on the first offensive play. Boss Tagaloa was flagged for 15 yards when he tried to retaliate for his quarterback being stepped on in the pile, and that was the half with Cincinnati nursing a 10-7 lead.

Opportunities Missed

As poorly as they played in the first 30 minutes, the Bruins had the ball to open the second half and a chance for a lead. But by now, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman figured out that the Bruins’ only running game was Felton, the wide receiver. The Bearcats started stacking the line, forcing Thompson-Robinson to try to beat them through the air. On the first drive of the half, Thompson-Robinson tried forcing a pass into double coverage to tight end Jordan Wilson. It was picked off by a diving Perry Young.

Warren would finish the drive, and the Bruins, plowing through defenders for a 12-yard touchdown run and 17-7 lead. Both Cincinnati touchdowns to that point came off Thompson-Robinson turnovers.

Thompson-Robinson drove the Bruins down to the Bearcats seven-yard line on the strength of a 39-yard pass to Jaylen Erwin. From the Cincinnati seven, he found receiver Chase Cota, who bulled his way into the endzone to narrow the Bearcats lead to 17-14. It was the sophomore’s first career touchdown at UCLA.

Cincinnati would put the game away once and for all on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Bearcats capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a screen pass from Ridder to Warren in the flat, that the running back would take for a 21-yard touchdown and a 24-14 lead.

UCLA had one more chance to potentially break through. With three-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Warren fumbled and Bruins linebacker Krys Barnes had a 25-yard scoop and score. But the Pac 12 officials ruled that Warren’s knee was down. That would be the final blow.

Questions Unanswered

It is a long flight home from the Midwest after a game like this. Having played a Thursday night game, the Bruins get a couple of extra days to lick their wounds, both the physical and emotional kind. They return to the Rose Bowl next week in a midday game. They will face the withering Pasadena heat and the San Diego State Aztecs, a team that won seven games last year and will get a likely pushover win over Weber State Saturday.

UCLA has a lot of questions to deal with over those next eight days.

The Bruins still did not show any semblance of a viable pass rush. We were told during the camp the line knew they needed to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It rarely happened Thursday night. If you are going to play man-to-man defense, you are asking too much of your defensive backs if they get no help from the front seven.

Health is a prevailing issue. Kelley was listed at the top of the running back depth chart but clearly was not physically ready to go. Head coach Chip Kelly admitted that he was protecting his running back who was still not 100%. Allen’s status going forward is TBD. And why was Irby not more of an option? They are all viable issues. The defensive backfield is at a disadvantage without Holmes. Alves status going forward remains a question.

It’s a long way to go to blend the on-field product with the off-field story lines from camp.