UCLA’s Football Gauntlet

UCLA's Football Gauntlet
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It wasn’t pretty last weekend, but UCLA had enough in the arsenal to get out of Tucson with the win. The Bruins moved to 4-2 on the season and 2-1 in conference play. But now comes the part of the season that everyone has had circled since Spring camp. UCLA’s football gauntlet starts Saturday night in Seattle.

The Gauntlet Is Here

Over the next three weeks UCLA faces Washington on the road, Oregon at home, and Utah in Salt Lake City. If they win two of the three, they secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2017. The Bruins ended the regular season at 6-6 that year. They fired head coach Jim Mora before playing in the Cactus Bowl on a baseball field in Tucson. Interim coach Jedd Fisch took the Bruins to the game where they got beat by Kansas State 35-17, ending a rather ignominious campaign.

Finishing The Job

Maybe finishing 6-6 and just edging your way into bowl eligibility isn’t such a good idea. UCLA’s history over the last two decades is checkered with interim coaches taking over in bowl games after the head coach was fired.

Bob Toledo was fired in December of 2002. He was replaced by assistant Ed Kezirian as UCLA beat New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl. In 2007 Karl Dorrell was fired at the end of the season, and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker took over on an interim basis in losing the Las Vegas Bowl to BYU. Rick Neuheisel was sent packing after the 2011 season. Assistant coach Mike Johnson took over for the loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. And then there was the Mora firing and Fisch’s one-game appointment in 2017.

Maybe UCLA needs to be setting its goals higher. It does, after all, have one of the most experienced teams in the country. Winning two of those three guarantees that six-win season. But then the Bruins finish with Colorado, USC, and Cal. All are very winnable games. Eight to nine wins should not be too much to ask for.

Troubled Passing Game Meets Good Passing Defense

But first things first. UCLA travels to Seattle this weekend to play one of the best pass defenses in the country. Washington is only allowing 147 passing yards per game. That is good enough for third in the country. If that is not alarming enough, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is coming off one of the worst statistical performances in a victory in recent memory for the Bruins. Thompson-Robinson was one for eight passing for three yards and a touchdown in the first half Saturday in Tucson.

Monday, UCLA head coach Chip Kelly was asked if he ever considered pulling Thompson-Robinson in the second half even for a few series. “Nope,” was his complete answer. He was then asked if the conversation ever came up in the locker room at all at halftime. “Nope,” was his follow-up answer.

Thompson-Robinson came back to a small degree in the second half. He finished the game eight for 19 for 82 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Throughout the game he opted to go for longer, more difficult passes downfield, when shorter easier ones were available. It sailed in the face of Thompson-Robinson being a quarterback who needs to get into an early rhythm.

On UCLA’s first drive, down 3-0, he had tight end Greg 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.

Later in the first half, UCLA was driving. But Thompson-Robinson opted not to go to a wide-open Brittain Brown in the flat. Instead, he tried to thread a pass downfield to Kyle Philips, but the pass was intercepted.

Kelly said Monday that Arizona’s blitz packages were disruptive to Thompson-Robinson. “They were a very complex coverage operation,” Kelly said.

Now he is facing the toughest opponent to date in terms of passing defense. The Huskies have one of the top linebackers in the conference in Edefuan Ulofoshio. He is averaging eight tackles per game.

See Brittain Run; See Zach Run

Kelly was asked was he was going to plan for if the Washington pass defense was too difficult for UCLA to get through, like the Arizona defense. “Then run the ball for 350 yards,” was his response. The Bruins did in fact roll up 329 yards on the ground in Tucson last week, with Brown and Zach Charbonnet leading the way.

Logic says that is the answer going forward. Thompson-Robinson has had some good halves, just usually not two in the same game. And Arizona has now given teams going forward the blueprint on complex blitz packages that trouble UCLA’s offense. That brings us back to Brown and Charbonnet. Their involvement in the offense has fluctuated over the season. Kelly previously said Fresno took away the run game by stacking seven defenders in the box.

The answer seemed pretty clear against Stanford. Put players in motion to move the linebackers and utilize the running backs as receivers out of the backfield. Both prosper with the ball in space. The solutions have to come in-game and not wait for the flight home film review. But getting the ball to Charbonnet and Brown determines your fate. UCLA has outrushed its opponents for the last 12 games. And Washington has one of the worst run defenses in the country.

This Is Your Season

The season rests in large part on these next three games. Lose them all and you have a losing record going into the last three weeks. Win one of the three and you survived. Wins in two of the three and you have put yourself in good position for a bowl game that will not require the services of an interim coach. Win all three and you write your own ticket for the rest of the season. But the gauntlet starts this week.

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