Bruins Fall Backwards, 20-17

This is why Chip Kelly does not believe in momentum from one game to the next. After UCLA’s inexplicable 20-17 loss to Arizona in Tucson Saturday, it seems clear that the Washington State win the week before was more of an anomaly than a trend towards improvement. J.J. Molson’s missed 39-yard field goal with 40 seconds left was the perfect ending for a team that has become an enigma in just a few short weeks.

Bruins Fall Backwards, 20-17

Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s defense continues to be dubious in every sense. The Bruins were facing a true freshman quarterback, yet the UCLA defensive scheme was played like they were going against a talented senior. Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate was out for the game with a hamstring injury. That should have been of great value to UCLA, since Tate is the epitome of a dual threat quarterback, the kind that UCLA has yet to prove they can beat. Arizona was also missing starting running back J.J. Taylor with a leg injury. This should have been tailor made for UCLA. Few things work out that way with this program right now.

Arizona started true freshman Grant Gunnell at quarterback. Even though his only real experience this season came against Northern Arizona, the UCLA defensive scheme was never altered to put more pressure on him. The defensive backs still gave excessive cushion to the receivers, never making Gunnell prove he could go downfield. With the underneath wide open, as it is every week, Gunnell thanked UCLA with a 29 of 44 passing performance for 352 yards and a touchdown. Arizona racked up 465 yards of total offense, prior to taking a knee a few times at the end of the game.

Bruins Fall Backwards
Sep 28, 2019; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Grant Gunnell (17) takes the snap during the first half against the UCLA Bruins at Arizona Stadium. (Photo courtesy Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bruins looked like last week’s version of the team on their first drive of the game. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson drove them 85 yards downfield with his rushing ability and some solid pickups by running back Joshua Kelley. Thompson-Robinson found Matt Lynch in the back of the end zone for a two-yard touchdown pass. It was Lynch’s first catch since converting from back-up quarterback to tight end.

That was literally the highlight….the one. The Bruins had a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. But there were ominous signs beyond the one drive. The UCLA offensive line was getting man handled. They could not occupy the rush beyond the first level. The Arizona defensive line did such an effective job of tying up the offensive line that the linebackers were stopping the UCLA rushing game with ease in the first half. Colin Schooler had 13 tackles, including two for a loss. Tony Fields II added another 10 tackles.

Following the pattern of the season, there will be talk about UCLA’s offensive line being young. True freshmen Duke Clemens and Sean Rhyan were both starting on the left side of the line. But if we are going to be honest, the line had Boss Tagaloa who started nine games last year and every game this year; Christaphany Murray who has started every game in his 16 game UCLA career; and Jake Burton who started 11 games last year and every game this year. Even Rhyan has started all five games this season. This offensive line is no younger than most lines in the country. It just wasn’t effective getting to the second level of blocking.

Arizona got two field goals from Lucas Havrisik in the second quarter to make the halftime score 7-6, Bruins. UCLA had 85 yards on its first drive, and all of 100 yards the rest of the half. Conversely, Arizona had 225 yards at halftime, with 170 of it coming form their first-time-starting quarterback.

UCLA’s first drive of the second half consisted of 17 plays and used 6:32 of the clock. But because they insisted on trying to run up the middle when the line could not open any holes, they only gained 54 yards. They had to settle for a 37-yard field goal to take a 10-6 lead. The offense lacked any sense of diversity. While Kelley looked healthy and effective in spurts, Demtric Felton was nowhere to be found. Despite dominating the stats last week in Pullman, Felton finished the game with only six carries and two receptions. The Arizona linebackers did a good job of containing him wide, but the entire point of taking a career wide receiver and turning him into a hybrid running back is for the variety of options it gives you. But he has to be on the field to have those.

Following UCLA’s six-and-a-half minute drive, Arizona needed all of 11 seconds to take over the game. Gunnell found running back Bam Smith.  He had blown right past Stephan Blaylock along the near sideline, wide open for a 75-yard touchdown play. The wildcats had a 13-10 lead.

Things went from dicey to dire with 45 seconds left in the third quarter. Thompson-Robinson unloaded the ball trying to avoid a sack, but his ankle got tweaked under the defender. He would run up and down the sidelines trying to test it. But the game was now turned over to back-up Austin Burton who had never taken a snap in college game.

Burton got a 36-yard run and a 3-yard touchdown run from Kelley, and the Bruins had a 17-13 lead going into the fourth quarter. Kelley finished the game with 127 yards on 27 carries. But 39 of those yards were on the two carries. Otherwise he was averaging just over three yards per carry most of the game.

Considering his suspect lack of snaps this season, Burton acquitted himself well. He finished five of nine for 48 yards. The offensive line curiously opened more holes for Kelley at that point also.

UCLA seemingly had Arizona stopped just shy of midfield early in the 4th quarter. The Wildcats had the ball fourth and two on their own 47-yard line. Head coach Kevin Sumlin opted to go for it on fourth down. Gary Brightwell picked up a yard-and-half which would have turned the ball over on downs. The spot, however, gave him the full two yards, despite replay showing he came up short.

Bruins Fall Backwards
Sep 28, 2019; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats running back Gary Brightwell (23) and quarterback Grant Gunnell (17) celebrate a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins during the second half at Arizona Stadium. (Photo courtesy Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports).

Arizona would take full advantage of the subsidy. Brightwell would blow through UCLA’s arm tackling for a 10-yard touchdown and a 20-17 Wildcats lead.

Burton would put the Bruins within a fighting chance one more time. With just over two minutes left in the game, he completed four passes for 40 yards. Felton added 10 more yards on two rushes to put Molson into what should have been easy field goal range. Molson got one through the uprights, but Sumlin had called a timeout. The next one was not even close, drifting wide right. Molson, including Saturday’s loss, has connected only twice all season on field goals.

There will be plenty of talk about the poor spot on the Arizona fourth down. And yes, Arizona did convert on that. But there was so much more to UCLA’s loss than that. The defense continued to play soft, against a quarterback with no big-game experience. The offensive line was sporadic at best and often failed to block through to the second level to provide a consistent running attack.  The offensive play calling lacked the urgency and imagination that came with being down 32 points the week before.

As a result, the Bruins, who had a chance to take over first place in the Pac 12 South return home with more questions than answers, just as it was before the Washington State game. They host Oregon State, which seemingly would have given them a chance to go 3-0 in conference. But now the Bruins look at the scoreboards and see that Stanford needed a last second field goal to beat Oregon State, and realize they are not in any position to assume anything anymore.