There was a lot of confident talk coming out of Fall camp for UCLA. But there is every year, and the Bruins had yet to put that on to the field in a season opener. That is until they hosted Hawai’i Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson got off to a very slow start, but it did not matter because UCLA has a potent running game again. They used that to unleash a 44-10 beat down of the Rainbow Warriors. Chip Kelly is 1-0 for the first time in his four years at UCLA. The season opener had an announced crowd 32,982. It was the smallest crowd for a home opener in nearly 30 years.
Thompson-Robinson missed his first four passes and by the end of the half had only 45 yards throwing. It did not matter. As we have been reporting since Spring camp, UCLA has a big-time running attack again, perhaps better than any they have had in Kelly’s tenure. Time will tell when they face a viable opponent.
Zach Charbonnet, the transfer from Michigan, had two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter. He would finish with 106 yards and three touchdowns on only six carries. Sixth year senior Brittan Brown added 78 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
UCLA was up 3-0 after a 27-yard field goal by Nicholas Barr-Mira, and the second drive was bogging down as Thompson-Robinson could not find his timing with his receivers. So Kelly opted to keep it on the ground. Five straight runs by Brown and Charbonnet produced 52 yards. Thompson-Robinson hit Charbonnet out of the backfield for a 21-yard completion. Then Charbonnet ran it the final 21 yards for the touchdown and the 10-point lead. The Bruins’ drive was 87 yards with 73 of it coming on the ground. That was the theme for the half.
Brown added a one-yard touchdown run up the middle to make it 17-0 barely halfway through the first quarter.
Hawai’i got a 48-yard field goal from Matthew Shipley to make it 17-3 and that was what was going to serve as “close” in this game.
Charbonnet capped a 75-yard drive with a 47-yard run to put the Bruins up 24-3 at the end of the first quarter. Thompson-Robinson was only two of seven for 29 yards, but UCLA had 148 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Things didn’t get any better for Hawaii in the second quarter. Down by three touchdowns already, head coach Todd Graham felt compelled to go for it on fourth and nine at his own 39-yard line. The pass over the middle was broken up by Quentin Lake and the Bruins took over with a chance to put the game away early.
Charbonnet went to work on second and six with a 21-yard touchdown run to make it 31-3 which is where it stood at halftime.
Thompson-Robinson shook off the first half issues on the first possession of the third quarter. On the fifth play he found former running back Kazmeir Allen who made an over-the-left-shoulder catch for a 44-yard touchdown pass. Barr-Mira missed the PAT. But the Bruins needed only three plays to go up 37-3, and it was just minutes into the second half.
Hawai’i got a punt blocked by Alabama transfer Ale Kaho. It was recovered in the end zone by David Priebe and on a rare occasion in the Kelly era, everything was working for the Bruins, as they went up 44-3.
Hawai’i did manage to get a touchdown in the third quarter on a nine-play, 90-yard drive to “cut” the lead to 44- 10 late in the third quarter.
By that point Kelly had pulled Thompson-Robinson to give back-up Ethan Garbers, the transfer from Washington some snaps. Thompson-Robinson finished the game 10-20 for 130 yards and one touchdown. It wasn’t pretty. But he ran the offense which was mostly mistake free from a statistics standpoint. UCLA had a rushing game that Hawai’i had no chance of neutralizing. Brown and Charbonnet also got the fourth quarter off to give some snaps to reserve Keegan Jones.
The defense was particularly aggressive. Some called it that last year, but this was far different. Kelly and defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro were doing more than just blitzing. They were hiding the blitzes more and moving players around with greater frequency. Bo Calvert was moved from middle linebacker to outside linebacker before the season started. But it was not unusual to see him lined up right over the ball in Saturday’s game. Kain Medrano moved from linebacker to an outside pass rusher on many occasions.
The result was that even when Hawai’i quarterback Chevan Cordero did get his passes off, complete or not, he was taking huge hits. He finished the game 24 of 46 for 216 yards, and a touchdown and two interceptions. The Rainbow Warriors also were held to 26 yards rushing, compared to UCLA’s 254.
While Kelly felt good about the win, he said there is still a lot to do. “I think there was some really positive things we can build on from today,” Kelly said after the game. “But there’s also a lot of things we’ve got to clean up.”
While UCLA has had strong running attacks in the past with the likes of Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton. But Kelly said this is different with Brown and Charbonnet. “It’s comforting to know there is not much of a transition between either of those guys.” Kelly said their running styles are so similar the scheme stays the same. “When you play the kind of schedule we play, you need to have multiple running backs.”
He was unconcerned that one part of his offense was dominant in results over another. “You don’t get points at the end of the game if you have a balanced system,” Kelly said. “Sometimes you just see what the hot hand is.”
One other person happy for the running game was Thompson-Robinson’s mother, Melva. She tweeted a little jab at Michigan for Charbonnet now being a Bruin.
— Melva Thompson-Robinson (@mtrobinson) August 28, 2021
Thompson-Robinson, the quarterback, was also grateful for the running game. “If you ask me, I think we have the best running back duo in the country,” he said after the game. “That was on full display today.
So, the Bruins head into week two of the season 1-0 for the first time in the Chip Kelly era. But now they have a tough opponent in week two, if not a potentially disjointed one. LSU heads to town, with 20,000 fans expected to make trip. But with Hurricane Ida bearing down on Louisiana, the team has packed up and is relocating to Houston for the week.