Don’t look now but UCLA can play football with the big boys. The Bruins proved that by controlling the late stages of the game Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins roll 16th ranked LSU 38-27 in front of an announced crowd of 68,123, and stake a claim to some national recognition.
Bruins Roll LSU 38-27
This Was Different
For all of head coach Chip Kelly’s work to convince everyone that one game is just as important as the next, there is no convincing most UCLA loyalists now. After the game the UCLA side of the field was showered with confetti. Athletic Director Martin Jarmond was on the field hugging players and coaches as they entered the tunnel. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff was on the field high fiving folks. It was a tough day for the conference. Oregon struggled against a good Fresno State team, and Washington got bounced by Montana. The bright light for the Pac-12 this day was UCLA. That’s a statement that could not be made in the last four years.
The crowd was into it early. The LSU fans packed the south end zone, at least 20,000 strong. UCLA fans got there a little later, but get there they did. UCLA will not give what the new capacity figure is for the Rose Bowl since they put tarps in the north end of the stadium. But reasonable estimates would put it at about 70,000. And it was a loud venue Saturday night.
The two teams…they did not show up quite as ready. They combined for 103 yards of total offense in the first quarter on their way to a scoreless tie.
Johnson vs. Thompson-Robinson
LSU finally got on the board in the second quarter. Quarterback Max Johnson threw a three-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte. The drive went 63 yards and was helped by a 15-yard interference call on UCLA that kept the drive alive.
The Bruins opened their scoring in the second period when quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson found tight end Greg Dulcich at the Bruins 45-yard line. It would have been a 20-yard completion. But Dulcich juked a defender and took it the rest of the way for a 75-yard touchdown catch, and the 7-7 tie. Those yards moved Thompson-Robinson into seventh on the all-time UCLA passing yards list, moving past Troy Aikman.
Thompson-Robinson statistically was somewhat better than last week. He finished the game eight of 16 for 260 yards and three touchdowns to go with one interception. At one point in the third quarter, he was -35 yards net rushing because four sacks and seven tackles for loss on him. His decision making under duress was still cause for concern.
But for the second week in a row, he had all the help he needed on offense from the running game. Zach Charbonnet had another big game. He had a 45-yard reception from Thompson-Robinson with an assist from receiver Kyle Philips. What looked like a routine medium gain was turned into the 45-yarder when Philips laid out the LSU defensive back with his hit. Charbonnet took it the last 12 yards for the touchdown and the 14-7 second quarter lead. Charbonnet accounted for 67 of UCLA’s 71 yards on the drive.
Cade York connected on a 26-yard field goal to cut the UCLA lead to 14-10, which is where it stood at halftime.
On LSU’s first drive of the third quarter, Johnson was scrambling, a common theme for the night. He tried dumping the pass, but it was picked off by Caleb Johnson and returned 34 yards to the LSU 17-yard line. Thompson-Robinson connected with Chase Cota, after going through his progressions, for a 14-yard touchdown pass and a 21-10 lead that had the faithful cautiously believing.
UCLA Has Answers
LSU responded with a quick touchdown as Johnson connected with Boutte across the middle. Jay Shaw was inadvertently picked off by the official, and Boutte had a clear path for the 44-yard touchdown. The Bruins lead was down to 21-17.
But the Bruins had answers throughout the second half. Nicholas Barr-Mira hit a 43-yard field goal to get a little more padding in the UCLA lead at 24-17.
The short slant passes and easy crossing patterns were open all day for LSU. While the UCLA defense has become more aggressive, Kelly is going to look at the film of a lot of wide-open receivers. Johnson moved the Tigers downfield again for a 33-yard field goal and the lead was back down to four at 24-20. Johnson finished with what would look like an acceptable stat line. He was 26 of 46 for 330 yards three touchdowns, and one interception. Statistically, he led drive and outperformed Thompson-Robinson. But Thompson-Robinson got the big plays and had the running game. LSU’s running game contributed all of 48 yards to the Tigers effort.
Putting It Away
It was the Bruins running backs taking over for good in the fourth quarter. Charbonnet had a 43-yard run to the LSU 16. After a penalty pushed them back Thompson-Robinson connected with Dulcich for 19 yards to the LSU one. Brittain Brown took it the last yard for the 31-20 lead, and you could see the LSU fans start to find the exits.
Both teams added another fourth quarter touchdown, but the issue had been decided. The final nil in the coffin was Thompson-Robinson finding Philips at the LSU 32-yard line. He then juked one defender along the sideline and broke a tackle to power his way into the end zone for a 38-20 lead with just over six minutes left.
The players were starting the celebration mode on the sidelines. The fans on the UCLA side of the field had reached all-out giddiness. Jarmond had already taken a microphone during a TV timeout, over in front of the student section, imploring the students to be up and loud the rest of the way. If UCLA is going to perform like this, Jarmond is not going to have to work the crowd.
After the game, Kelly started by sharing that he had talked to the LSU coaches about the journey they had going to Houston to be ahead of Hurricane Ida. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to everybody in Louisiana,” Kelly said.
He called the atmosphere Saturday night, “awesome.” He also said was not impressed with his defense. But let’s give full context to that. “It’s what I expect from my defense. I see it all the time.”
The difference in this year’s team, after two games, is a maturity not seen in previous year. It is both on and off the field. “They understand that if you embrace the process, the process is what brings you back.” After the game, some of the UCLA players were doing a little victory taunting of some of the departing LSU fans. Fifth year senior Jordan Genmark-Heath went to his players and told them to quit acting out and get back with their team.
Kelly said there is still a lot of work to do. The team has a week off before facing Fresno State. Kelly called it an improvement week. He said they get to start practice a half hour later on Monday. It will be time to re-gather their focus. Because this was not just another game and it was not just another win. UCLA played one of the nation’s “big boys,” and won.