The Bruins struggles are no secret. Chip Kelly being 0-3 for the second year in a row is what makes the team national news in the sports world. UCLA got the beating most expected by Oklahoma last weekend. Now they have to move forward and upward as they head to Pullman to face one of the hardest offenses to defend against in the Pac 12.
UCLA Has Tough Travels
The Washington State Cougars are 3-0. As usual, head coach Mike Leach has no qualms about throwing the ball 60 times per game if that is what is needed to win. They haven’t faced the same level of competition as UCLA, but have easily taken care of business none the less. Once again, Leach is relying on a redshirt senior to guide the offense in Anthony Gordon. All he is doing is leading the country in passing with 1,324 yards and 12 touchdowns in the three games. The fewest passes he has thrown in a game was last week. He had 35 passes against New Mexico State, for 420 yards and five touchdowns. The only reason he threw so little was because he sat out much of the second half in a 51-point win.
Not that we need to rub salt in to the 0-3 UCLA wound, but the idea of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson throwing that many passes in a game is unimaginable. He has thrown 87 passes this season. That is a game-and-a-half for Gordon. Thompson-Robinson has 556 yards on the season with five touchdowns and four interceptions. UCLA cannot get into a shootout with the Cougars or the game will be over early.
So how do you avoid that when the Bruins are ranked 115th out of 130 teams in the country in total defense? They are ranked 124th in passing defense. Linebacker Josh Woods says it is not about the schemes from defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. He says the defensive unit has been making mental mistakes in games. “They are 90% pass. We are making too many errors. They do it well. We are excited to see it.” Talk about be careful what you wish for.
The Bruins were already down linebackers Bo Calvert, (NCAA suspension), and Tyree Thompson, (foot surgery). Now they appear to have lost Krys Barnes for an extended time with a knee injury sustained last week. They do get Keisean Lucier-South back. How much he is ready to play is still a question, having missed some of camp and the first three games. Woods said Lucier-South has been very aggressive in practice this week after having to sit out for so long.
Woods admitted that this game has a different meaning for him. It is his first trip back to Pullman since the suicide death of his high school teammate, Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski last year. Woods and Hilinski took their official visit to Washington State together as high school seniors. “Pullman will always have a special place in my heart because of Tyler,” Woods said Wednesday.
Kelly says Mike Leach runs his high octane offense better than anyone else in the country. “He’s going to throw it no matter what,” Kelly said of Leach. “They’ve run it for so long and done these things, that they can make adjustments to whatever they see. In Mike’s career, he been defensed every which way. Rush one, rush 11. He’s seen it all and I think he has answers to it all.”
That should make for sleepless nights for Azzinaro. His defense is giving up just under 300 yards passing per game, against opponents who do not throw to the level the Cougars do. The Bruins still are not getting a pass rush. They have only four sacks on the season (106th in the country), for a total loss of 31 yards for the opponents. Couple that with soft overages by the defensive secondary, and this seems like self-prescribed hardship in the making. Kelly said Leach runs the one pure Air Raid offense. “By doing it that way, Mike has answers for whatever you throw at him. So, it’s still going to come down to individual battles. How well do we cover their wide outs and how well does our defensive front pressure their quarterback?”
Washington State is going to put up its points. There is nothing on either side to suggest they won’t. How then, does the UCLA offense respond?
Thompson-Robinson thinks the Bruins are prepared based on last week. “I think we are going to pretty much see the same defense we saw with Oklahoma. So, I think we are getting a second look at that. I think we will be more comfortable with the look.” In case anyone needs reminding, UCLA had 201 yards passing and 110 rushing against Oklahoma. Both Kelly and Thompson-Robinson said the Bruins will not see a team the rest of the season with the fire power that Oklahoma dropped on them last week. So, it is getting easier? Well the 14 points per game UCLA is averaging is not likely going to be enough to keep up with Washington State.
Thompson-Robinson says the team has heard a different tone from the coaches this week at practice. “The coaches have really picked up their intensity in terms of wanting stuff right and pushing us more.” He said the coaches are not letting the little things slide but pushing for perfection, as coaches are generally prone to do.
Comparisons to Kelly’s tempo offense at Oregon continue. Especially since the current Bruins offense bears no resemblance to what took the college football world by storm in Eugene. “We are not a big tempo operation. A lot of that comes from depth. At Oregon, we could probably play nine or 10 receivers and there wasn’t a whole lot of difference from one to nine,” he said Wednesday. Kelly again referred to the 87 freshmen and sophomores on this team, even though many of those second-year players got tons of snaps last year.
Leach, in his weekly press conference said he thought Oregon’s blur offense could still work today at UCLA. He called UCLA “an extremely talented team.” He also noted they are not living up to what they can do. “I think they are better than they have been playing because I know a great deal about their players. We recruited a lot of them. I just don’t think they’re playing together as well as they would like right now, but than can happen any time.”
It’s a nice sentiment that Bruins fans would like to hang their collective hats on. But while Kelly is adamant that he cannot run the “Blur” offense with this current roster, surely UCLA fans would settle for a scamper or scurry plan for now. It would be better than what they have gotten so far.