Can UCLA Get Momentum?

UCLA’s 2021 is now or never for Chip Kelly
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We have been here before with UCLA football this season. Let’s face it we have been here a few times over the last three seasons. Will there be momentum coming off last week’s win? Or will it be fleeting success stopped in its track by a team that is better than last week’s opponent?

Can UCLA Get Momentum?

The Bruins face Arizona State in Tempe Saturday. ASU has played one game…..one. Check your calendar. It is early December and they have played one game. They have missed the last three weeks to COVID issues. Some belonged to the Sun Devils. Some belonged to their opponents. Head coach Herm Edwards and some of his staff contracted the disease as well. And they are 0-1 having lost to USC in the first week back for the Pac 12.

As for the Bruins, they are 2-2, having beaten a hapless Arizona team last weekend at the Rose Bowl. No one wants to get too far ahead of themselves, but a win in Tempe and the Bruins would have a winning record for the first time in the Chip Kelly era.

It’s no mistake that they have this chance at a winning record. They have gone from one of the worst defenses in the country the last two years to #33 in total defense in 2020. They are 40th in run defense and 25th in passing efficiency defense.

We can talk about “the process” all anyone wants. But the clear signs are that there is a different energy and effectiveness thanks to grad transfer players Obi Eboh and Qwuantrezz Knight. A full season of the talented Bo Calvert, and the new found aggressiveness of Osa Odighizuwa and the defensive line have been major factors as well.

The New Look Sun Devils

They will face a quarterback who possesses speed and ability more than anyone they have played yet this year. Last year, as a freshman, Jayden Daniels threw for just under 3,000 yards with 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is missing the running game of Eno Benjamin that he had last year, so he is doing much of the running himself. Daniels is the team’s leading rusher. He has 124 rushing yards in the one game this season to go with the 134 passing.

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said Daniels is, “A true dual threat. He is extremely talented; as talented as any quarterback we will face. He can hurt you with both his arms and his legs.”

With only the USC game from three weeks ago to work with, there is limited film prep that can be done. Yes, Daniels faced the Bruins last season. In fact, he had three passing touchdowns and a fourth one rushing in the 10-point ASU loss at the Rose Bowl. But Arizona State has a new offensive coordinator in Zak Hill. So, there are changes that take better advantage of Daniels’ multi skills and cover over the loss of Benjamin. One of the few problems  UCLA had last week against Arizona was defending against speed on the edges. That is exactly what Daniels brings to the table.

Kelly said they will go off the one game, “And then line up and play football.” He used the Cal game as an example. The Bruins had about 48 hours lead time when they found out they would be playing Cal at the Rose Bowl two weeks ago. There was little prep time for the opponent. It was more, as Kelly said, UCLA taking care of getting itself ready.

Defensive Changes

On the other side of the ball, ASU is working with new co-defensive coordinators in Antonio Pearce and Marvin Lewis. “It’s totally changed,” Kelly said of the ASU defense. Defensive back Evan Fields led the team with 17 tackles in the USC game last month. But ASU gave up about 550 yards in that loss. That includes Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis going 50 of 55 for 381 yards and two touchdowns. The Sun Devils no longer run a three-man defensive front. They do not use hybrid defensive backs/linebackers. It is more of a traditional Marvin Lewis defense. It just lacks the experienced talent it has had in recent years.

Which UCLA quarterback the ASU defense will be facing was still a question mark as of Wednesday. As of the morning media session, the testing results from that day had not been released. Starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has missed the last two games with COVID contact tracing protocols. In his stead, Chase Griffin got the first two starts of his career. He played admirably in the loss at Oregon and had pedestrian stats in the win over Arizona.

Who Is Running The Offense?

With both players starting two games, Griffin has thrown 15 fewer passes than Thompson-Robinson this season and has 170 fewer yards. But Griffin is completing his passes at a significantly higher completion percentage than Thompson-Robinson, (60% to 51%). They both share a considerable problem taking care of the ball.

The Bruins offense, when working, is going to begin and end with the running game. Demetric Felton is averaging 134 yards rushing per game. He is coming off his career high, with 206 yards rushing against Arizona. He is in his first year as a full time running back, after being a hybrid running back and receiver last year. Kelly called Felton a hard worker at his new position. “That’s the one thing I love about Felt. He continues to work on all aspects; pass catching, pass routes, vision, cuts, jump cuts. All the things you have to do to be a great running back, he’ll continue to work on.”

As Kelly says each week, continuing to work on the fundamentals and improving on taking care of the ball/cutting down on turnovers will be the key to winning. The Bruins have a total of one turnover in their two wins. They have a combined eight turnovers in their two losses. The quarterback-to-be named later versus the Marvin Lewis defense will likely be the story of the game Saturday.