UCLA gets back to work this after week after a bye, as the Fresno State Bulldogs make the 220-mile trip down the freeway to play the Bruins Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.
Fresno State comes into Pasadena at 2-1 having walloped FCS Cal Poly last week 63-10. But if you are looking for a measuring stick, it came two weeks ago against Oregon. At the end of the third quarter, Fresno State was tied with the Ducks at 21. We have seen, subsequently how good Oregon is. So the reality of Fresno State’s quality is also apparent.
The Past Is Still There
And no UCLA fan should need a reminder of what Fresno State brings to the game. The Bulldogs have beaten the Bruins the last three times they have met. That includes the 2018 romp in the Rose Bowl with Fresno State winning 38-24. And typical of Fresno State road games, the city travels in support of their team. We are not talking LSU level fan participation with 20,000+. But expect the south end zone to be filled with at least 5,000 Bulldogs fans.
The DTR Factor And The Running Game
If irony were part of the final score of a game, it might be the biggest factor in this one. The Fresno State defense is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 52.7% completion rate. That is pretty darn close to the 52.8% UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is averaging through the first two games. Thompson-Robinson’s stats are an enigma two weeks into the season. He is last in the conference in completion percentage. But he leads the conference in passing efficiency, aided in large part by his averaging 20.53 yards per completion. That yards per completion number also leads the nation. His 174.9 efficiency rating is good enough for 18th in the country.
There will be a familiar face in the Bulldogs defensive backfield when Thompson-Robinson looks over the coverage. Elijah Gates, the former reserve defensive back for UCLA is now a starting strong safety for the Bulldogs and is fourth on the team in tackles.
Fresno State’s run defense is 34th in the country, allowing just over 91 yards on the ground for opponents. That is built mostly off playing UConn and Cal Poly. When the Bulldogs faced Oregon’s Travis Dye and CJ Verdell Fresno State gave up 186 yards. Now they face Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet. The Bruins are averaging 227 yards rushing per game.
The formula seems pretty simple for UCLA. Thompson-Robinson, who is averaging only 17.5 passing attempts per game, continues to be a field manager, while the Bruins pound the running game all night.
Fresno State’s DC Chimes In
Of UCLA’s offense, Fresno State defensive coordinator William Inge said this week, “This is a spread offense where physicality is a premium for them. They have a great, physical offense line; two running backs that hit the hole running down hill, getting vertical right now, and a quarterback that can make guys miss.” He said the challenge for his defense is, “We have to make sure we are great, and we are ready to do everything in our power to get the ball back for our offense.” Inge said he was impressed by the UCLA game film in the win over LSU with how the Bruins can wear a team down. “Over time they just physically overwhelmed them, (LSU), and had one more guy than LSU at the point of attack.”
Of course, things are rarely as simple as they seem.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener has been lighting up the stat sheets. He is throwing at a 73% completion rate, which puts him 10th in the country. And before anyone says, “Yeah, but UConn and Cal Poly……” he was 30 of 43 for 289 yards and a touchdown against one of the best defenses around in Oregon. Haener is leading the country in passing yards with 1,009.
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said of Haener, “He’s a really, really good football player. He’s dynamic. He has a knack for keeping plays alive. He’s really athletic. He’s just a productive football player We’re going to have our hands full containing him.” Kelly compared Haner’s football skills to those of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer said he needs his senior quarterback to come through in the big moments. “It’s just those big plays at the game changing moments that you just really need your quarterback and your veteran guy to come through.”
Haener also has former UCLA offensive lineman Alex Akingbulu protecting the pocket from the right tackle spot. Akingbulu redshirted one season in Westwood, sat out another with a knee injury and then left soon after Kelly took over as head coach.
UCLA’s Defense Is Better, But…
To amplify the matter, Fresno State is decidedly a throw-first, run-second offense. UCLA’s defense has been stellar against the run. The Bruins are fourth in the country, giving up only 37.5 yards per game rushing. So, a Bulldogs run game that has yet to produce against a big-time opponent faces a UCLA run defense that has stifled two teams. But then there is the passing game.
Haener has put up big numbers against every opponent this season. And he is facing a UCLA defense that is 115th in the country, out of 130 teams, in passing yards given up per game. The Bruins are decidedly better in total defense this season compared to previous years under Kelly and defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. They are 56th in the country in total yards given up per game. That is not great, but it is better than before. But the yards given up in the passing game is another story. Last year UCLA was 116th in the country in the category. Now they are merely one spot better.
Have all the explanations you want. Shutting down the running game is great, but if you want to compete in the national spotlight at the end of the season, improving your total defense stats is a requirement. It requires improving the passing yard standings by at least 40 spots in the remaining weeks. That means starting this week with shutting down Haener and the FSU passing attack.
Forgetting The Past And Getting Ready
With the last time these two met being just three years ago, and with UCLA being built on the foundation of a senior-laden team, many on the current roster were around to see the Bulldogs and their fans celebrate on UCLA’s home turf. Kelly dismissed the idea that the memory of that would still be with his team now. He said they have not talked about what happened three years ago. He referred to that as, “TBU…true but useless.”
Fresno State’s Inge characterized the physicality expected in this game. “This is going to be what you call real football. Your cleats better be laced up. Your helmet needs to be strapped. The air needs to be in it, and your shoulder pads need to be ready.” Beats any analysis we would have been able to give.