There are big games and there are BIG games. Which one is which depends on where you are coming from. If you are a fan, UCLA has not played a bigger out of conference game in the Chip Kelly era than what is ahead on Saturday with LSU coming to the Rose Bowl. If you are Kelly, it is the Super Bowl, but only because it is the one game this week. And for Kelly, every week is the Super Bowl because it is the one game in front of you. From an objective standpoint it is UCLA’s biggest game in Kelly’s time in Westwood.
Yes, UCLA played a home and home series with historic blueblood Oklahoma in the first two years under Kelly. And they played a Cincinnati squad that had already surpassed UCLA as a football program on the field.
But those were games played when Kelly was still talking about the youth of the team, and the players learning the new schemes of the coaching staff. It was also with a younger version of Dorian Thompson-Robinson who was still trying to figure out the whole college quarterback thing.
This is different. This is the, “If not now, when?” UCLA team. If you can’t win with 20 returning starters and a third-year starter at quarterback, then when can you win? And now, you bring in one of the perennial bluebloods in college football, two years removed from an undefeated season and national championship. The Bruins stood little chance in the two Oklahoma games, despite what the company line was or fan hopes were. But even the most ardent pessimist has to believe that UCLA can stay with LSU and keep it competitive. And if not now, when?
That’s not to say the match-ups are easy. As outwardly calm as Thompson-Robinson is, he has never played against two cornerbacks with the skill set of Derek Stingley, Jr. and Eli Ricks. He may not see a pair of starters this talented again for a long time. Stingley is potentially a top five draft pick next Spring. If Thompson-Robinson’s passing game goes sideways Saturday, Stingley will make him pay.
But UCLA has something it did not have in previous big games in prior years. Diversity in its talent. Sure, the Bruins had some receivers or had some tight ends, and of course they have had good running backs in Kelly’s time, but now they have a decent level of depth in all of it.
As good as Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton were in the backfield for UCLA, Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet are close to the same running back. There is no change in the schemes needed based on who is in. They both are bruising on the defenders and have enough speed and agility to work in the open field. No diversity needed there.
But the options that come with the offense started to be on display last week against Hawai’i. They were not as obvious because of the minimal number of completions. Kazmeir Allen showed the speed as a slot option that people thought he would use as a running back. Moving him around and getting him the ball in the open field provides options that do not lead to Stingley or Ricks interrupting your passing game.
Greg Dulcich has to get utilized this week. He is on any list of the top 10 tight ends in the country. He has the athletic flexibility to go over the middle or down the side. One catch for 15 yards is not going to cut it. We’re not talking about hanging the ball out there. We are talking about a secure passing game that does not ask too much of Thompson-Robinson other than safe accuracy. Kelly was clear this week that there is no offensive game plan that can possibly neutralize Stingley. He is the best in the position in the country. But because UCLA has spent years in the “we’re growing….we’re maturing…we’re learning,” mode, this is the game to put all of that alleged advancement front and center.
“Every game is the biggest game,” Kelly said in his weekly coach speak. “This is our Super Bowl, and this is their Super Bowl because it’s the next game on the list.” The desire of Kelly to play down the significance of any one game over another is routine. But it also does not fly this week. The Bruins have not, under Kelly, had this realistic of a shot to compete toe-to-toe with a top 10 program.
Defensive lineman Datona Jackson acknowledges playing a blueblood SEC program just 18 months removed from a national championship team feels different. “I think it does. It has a lot more eyes on it. It something that draws attention from people. Everyone wants to perform when they have eyes on them,” Jackson said Wednesday.
It’s fine to acknowledge it publicly. If the team really is that much more mature than the previous three, it should not be an impediment to performance either Saturday or in future games. If we are going to be honest, Kelly alluded to at least a slightly increased magnitude of the game, when talking about his quarterback. “The great part about Dorian is he always has played his best in our biggest games,” Kelly said Wednesday. “When you look at some of the bigger games we’ve played over the last couple of years, he’s always been really good in those games.”
Ok, so there is some level of acknowledgement that the coaching staff is expecting a bigger game out of Thompson-Robinson than he delivered against Hawai’i because this game is far bigger than the Hawai’i game.
That is as far as Kelly will ever go. That leaves it to others to take it to the next logical conclusion. This is the biggest game in Kelly’s years at UCLA. Losing it does not damn the rest of the season at all. Winning it is a potential path change for the coach and the program.