The UCLA Bruins are 2-0. That alone is news in the college football world. But after years in a college football desert, it is fair to ask if the recent success is a mirage. Or have the Bruins finally turned the corner after they constantly missed the turn for the last three years under Chip Kelly. They have a week off, so it is a good time to ask, what is next for UCLA football?
What Is Next For UCLA?
The LSU Aftermath
The win over LSU was not just another game, all coaching speak aside. Athletic director Martin Jarmond was on the field after the game hugging players as they went to the locker room. Confetti was flying everywhere.
The win got the attention of every college football commentator. The local tv stations who are generally absent throughout training camp and practice were suddenly all consuming in the post-game press conference since they had missed most of the last two months. And then the circus hit town on Tuesday. UCLA was named the National Team of the Week by the Football Writers Association of America, (FWAA). Running back Zach Charbonnet was voted Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week. Tackle Alec Anderson was named Pac-12 Offensive Lineman of the Week. And the Bruins were ranked in the top 20 of every viable national poll. So, what now?
Well, the fan base is predictably split between deliriously giddy and refusing to believe based on past experiences. Social media sites absurdly have UCLA fans complaining that the Bruins are still ranked behind USC, even though the Trojans started the season ranked and are 1-0, while the Bruins came out of nowhere to get to 2-0.
On The Field
An online bookmaker has put the odds on quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to win the Heisman at 33:1. No offense to the three year starter but the running back who is providing jaw dropping performances, Charbonnet, is only 66:1. Thompson-Robinson is definitely playing the most mistake-free football he has played in his three-plus years at UCLA. He is serving the role as field manager, as the game plans have not asked him to put the game on his shoulders. As a result, his stats are not really going to put him in the Heisman conversation. He is 11th in the conference in completion percentage. But he is leading the team and the team is 2-0 and that is the bottom line.
The offensive game plans are bearing fruit. UCLA was facing one of the best defensive backs in the country in LSU’s Derek Stingley, Jr. Letting him go one on one downfield with the wide receivers was a crap shoot at best. Out of the few completions thrown Saturday, one-third of them were to tight end Greg Dulcich. He has the tight end size and the receiver athleticism to be a physical mismatch for any defensive back. And it worked. Dulcich accounted for 45% of the passing/receiving yards and a touchdown.
The defense feels like it has been better. But it is still only 50th in the country in yards given up per game at 324. And they are 96th in the country in passing yards given up. That is better than the 114th spot they finished last year, but not good enough if the Bruins are going to compete for a conference championship. Wait. What? Conference championship? Have we lost our minds? Yes, UCLA fans this week have. They started the season hoping to be competitive and are now talking big time prognostications.
What the defense has been is opportunistic. It has played two teams with subpar running games and turned them into non-existent running games. UCLA’s rushing defense is 11th in the country. That has put all the pressure on the opposing quarterbacks The result has been a Hawai’i and an LSU quarterback putting up the yards but taking a physical beating in the process. The defensive coaching staff has been effectively hiding the blitzes and moving personnel around to keep the opposing quarterbacks guessing.
So, we go back to our original question. What’s next? The fans are allowed to be irrationally giddy. They have been patient, also irrationally so, for years. They forgot what it is like to have a modicum of success. Let them lose their heads in the excitement for a few days.
But the team has 10 more games to get through, and a daunting schedule. The Bruins are off this week before hosting Fresno State next Saturday night. No Bruin fans should have to be reminded that the Bulldogs beat UCLA in 2018 in the Rose Bowl.
It is understandable for the fans to get more than a little crazy. They don’t have to play the next game. Kelly said he is confident his team is mature enough to block out the noise that comes with the success. “You can’t own success. It’s rented, and you’ve got to pay your rent every week,” Kelly said Wednesday. “We’re proud of where we are right now, but we need to continue to work because 2-0 just means you are 2-0.”
The Bruins are only practicing a few times this week, in what Kelly calls, “Improvement Week.” . “We’ve got to get better in so many aspects of the game and then get ready and then start our preparations for a really good Fresno team.” He said the team has already starting watching Fresno State tape and the quality of the Bulldogs has their attention and focus already.