When parts of your game are not going right over the last two weeks, a win of any kind is good enough. That was UCLA got Saturday night as the Bruins escape Arizona, 34-16. The passing game was abysmal, but the running game was other worldly. That was good enough to move UCLA to 4-2 over and 2-1 in conference play.
Even as Arizona has not won a game since 2019, the Wildcats outplayed UCLA in some facets of the game. Arizona was on its third quarterback of the season. Jordan McCloud statistically outperformed UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But the Bruins have running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown and that was good enough to get out of Tucson with the win.
Brown and Charbonnet combined for 263 yards on 33 carries. Brown had 146 yards and a touchdown on a dozen carries. That included a 48-yard touchdown run up the middle that put the game out of reach halfway through the fourth quarter. Charbonnet added 21 carries for 117 yards. Thompson-Robinson even contributed two rushing touchdowns to go with his 28 yards on six carries. The Bruins totaled 329 yards on the ground. That is the most they have had since the season opener against Nevada in 2013 when they rushed for 345 yards.
That helps, for the moment, overshadow a horrible passing game. Thompson-Robinson finished eight of 19 for 82 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That was a huge improvement from his halftime stats. He was one of eight for three yards, one touchdown and one interception. The last time a UCLA quarterback threw for so few yards was Brett Hundley in his second year in 2013. He was 13 of 19 for 64 yards against Oregon. It can be disconcerting to see someone who has started for three-and-a-half years have that kind of night.
The difference between his passing in the first and second half was obvious. In the second half, he was making quick reaction reads to running backs in the flat and tight end Greg Dulcich over the middle. His struggles came when he sat in the pocket going through unnecessary progressions. Too often, he was missing open receivers on shorter plays and trying to force longer throws into tight coverage.
On UCLA’s first drive, down 3-0, he had Dulcich wide open on a short crossing route over the middle. Instead, he tried to hit Chase Cota on a seam route, even though Cota was in double coverage. The pass sailed over Cota’s head. Charbonnet’s 20 yards of rushing on the drive helped get UCLA down to the three yard line. On fourth down, the Bruins ran an outside zone to the left, which opened up Dulcich in the flat on the right side of the end zone. Thompson-Robinson found him while rolling out and made the completion for the touchdown and the 7-3 lead.
Arizona got a Lucas Havrisik 46-yard field goal early in the second quarter to shrink the UCLA lead to 7-6.
Later in the quarter, UCLA used a jet sweep with Kazmeir Allen for 24 yards down to the Arizona two-yard line. From there, Thompson-Robinson rolled to his left for the touchdown run and the 14-6 lead.
The Bruins lack of discipline on defense helped Arizona get back in the game before the end of the half. A pass interference call on Jay Shaw and a facemask penalty on Qwuantrezz Knight put the Wildcats at the UCLA 10 yard line. McCloud threw a backwards pass to Jermayne Joiner, who then threw across the field to his right to Michael Wiley for the touchdown. UCLA’s lead was down to one point at 14-13. The Bruins finished the game with 95 yards in penalties.
UCLA had one more drive available in the half. But Thompson-Robinson opted not to go to a wide-open Brown in the flat. Instead, he tried to thread a pass downfield to Kyle Philips, but the pass was intercepted.
Allen got a 73-yard kickoff return to start the second half. But UCLA went three and out after that and had to settle for a Nichols Barr-Mira 23-yard field goal to expand the lead to 17-13.
As the half went on, UCLA responded with a faster paced offense. Thompson-Robinson rolled to his right to dump it off to Brown for 14 yards. He had a quick pass over the middle to Dulcich for 11 yards. And then back-to-back Thompson-Robinson runs helped the Bruins get down to the Arizona four-yard line. Thompson-Robinson rolled to his right and cruised into the end zone to essentially put the game away at 24-16.
In the fourth quarter, Otito Ogbonnia hit McCloud, causing a fumble. Ogbonnia recovered the ball at the Arizona 37. Not only did the Wildcats lose the ball, but they lost their quarterback. McCloud injured his right leg and was replaced by Gunner Cruz. While fans are fond of saying, “Next man up,” there is usually a reason the back-up is the next guy instead of THE guy. Without McCloud, Arizona’s offense continued to stall throughout the fourth quarter.
Brown put the exclamation point on the game with a 48-yard touchdown run up the middle. Barr-Mira added a late 43-yard field goal for the 34-16 final.
After the game, rather than have concerns about the UCLA pass game play calling, or Thompson-Robinson’s performance, he gave credit to Arizona’s scheme. “Some of it was coverage-wise and some of it was their blitz scheme, they bring a lot of different guys and we missed a couple of protections. So Dorian was forced to throw hot and we shouldn’t have been throwing hot,” Kelly said. When he watches the game film on the plane ride home, he will see easier opportunities slighted in favor of lower percentage passes. Thompson-Robinson just said he had a hard time, “Getting into a rhythm,” in the first half.
UCLA needed to be able to run and they found the perfect defense to do it against. The Wildcats ranked 106th in the country in run defense. UCLA piled on another 130 yards over what the Wildcats had been giving up per game.
Arizona was never going to pose a rushing threat. They were 112th in the country, getting only 109 yards on the ground per game. They got 122 against UCLA. On the other hand, despite the defensive backs continuing to give huge amounts of cushion, Arizona threw for only 240 yards, a full 81 yards fewer than what UCLA usually gives up on average per game. Cruz managed only 48 yards passing over the last three drives after replacing McCloud.
The Bruins cling to third place in the Pac-12 South for now. They head up to Seattle next week to face a Washington Huskies team that is nowhere near expectations. They are currently fifth in the North.