Well that was fun. But if you are UCLA and Chip Kelly, the time to enjoy last week’s stunning come from 32 down victory over Washington State came and went long ago. The Bruins, (1-3 overall, 1-0 in conference), have Arizona this week in Tucson. Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate presents a whole different set of nightmares for a defense that had its moments in Pullman, yet gave up 720 yards of total offense. Kelly routinely dismisses the theory, but is there momentum?
UCLA Bruins; Is There Momentum?
The accomplishment was enough to put an extra bounce in the step of the players at practice this week after starting the season 0-3. That includes quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He had a breakout game, going 25 of 38 for 507 yards passing with five touchdowns. His post-game celebration included a lot of ice. “First play I got pushed into a d-end coming on my backside and got hit right in the mouth.” From there it was taking hits that would have him limping through much of the fourth quarter comeback. “For sure I was on adrenaline going into those last few series of the game.”
Kelly was not surprised. “He is one of the toughest quarterbacks I have ever had the opportunity to coach. You’ve got to stand in there and deliver a pass when there is an unblocked 300 pounder bearing down on you and there’s a lot of guys that can’t do that. They run out of the pocket and they don’t stand in there. Dorian does and that is a really admirable quality about him. He’s always been that way. He’s always been a very tough kid.”
For all of the toughness he showed in taking the hits, and all of the qualities he showed in the performance that UCLA fans have been waiting for, Thompson-Robinson was more introspective after the game. “I put all my attention to my teammates going into the locker room, and stuff. So, I just kind of sat back and took it all in as everybody was celebrating. I saw all their faces and that really put joy in my heart.”
Thompson-Robinson chuckled when we asked if had any sympathy for Anthony Gordon. The Washington State quarterback threw for 570 yards and had nine touchdown passes, and still lost. “I’m pretty sure he works pretty hard as well as his teammates, so yeah that kind of sucks.” Ok, so the sympathy was limited.
There is a reasonable chance to expect Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins will be in another offensive shootout this week. The Wildcats are 2-1 and coming off a bye week. This is their conference opener and they have had time to prep for UCLA. Tate is one of the more prolific dual threat quarterbacks in the country. He struggled last season with injuries and a coaching staff trying to turn him into a drop back quarterback in order to protect a hobbled ankle. Tate is healthy now and the reigns have been taken off. He has 684 yards passing and 238 rushing in three games. He also has eight total touchdowns.
Kelly called Tate one of the toughest quarterbacks in the country to defend against. “I think he is one of the most dynamic players in the country because of his ability with his arm and his legs. He really, really throws the deep ball extremely well. So, you have to be conscious of that. But you also have to be conscious that he can tuck the ball.”
That puts him more in the style category of a Jalen Hurts than an Anthony Gordon. Not that anyone needs any reminding but Hurts torched UCLA for 289 yards passing and 150 on the ground two weeks ago. For all the good that came out of the Washington State win, the UCLA defense still has so much work to do. Yeah, they got six turnovers, but they are giving up tons of yards. They are allowing an average of 530 yards per game. The Bruins are ranked 125th in the country out of 130 teams.
UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes is a childhood friend of Tate’s. He knows how hard it is going to be to keep him in check. “You’ve got to be on your pivot, simple as that. You’ve got to stay 10 toes down and be dialed in. You never know what he’s going to do, so you just gotta make sure you’re dialed into your technique and dialed in to your keys, and everything else is going to play itself out.”
Holmes admits he is still recovering from his ankle injury that kept him out of the first two games. “I am there mentally, so the physical will take care of itself.”
The Bruins defense had a trade-off in that they played without Quentin Lake last week but gained Keisean Lucier-South. Lake continues to practice with a wrap on his right hand that is so big, it looks like a caveman’s club. His status for Tucson will not be determined until later in the week. Lucier-South, however, brought a new energy to the defense in Pullman last weekend. He had the sack on Gordon that essentially ended the game. Linebacker Josh Woods had predicted that Lucier-South would play like an animal recently let of his cage. He had four total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble last weekend. Holmes said the addition was big. “He brought energy. He’s a playmaker and his fire just kept on burning.”
Will the UCLA offense have enough fire to be ready for its part of the potential shootout? Last week’s game was otherworldly. The Bruins have had one good truly complete half out of eight this season. Chip Kelly has never been one to believe in momentum from one game to the next. But his quarterback says he can sense a change. “I think me and him (Kelly), finally got on the same page in terms of just clicking-wise. I think that is really what you saw out there, is them calling stuff that I was really comfortable with and it allowed me to just go out there and play my game and not think so much,” Thompson-Robinson said.
You have to ask why it took four games into his sophomore season before it got to that “clicking” point, but better late to the party than not showing up at all, we suppose.