UCLA made it through the first step of the three-game trial with the win in Seattle over the Washington Huskies. Now the Bruins have to step up again, as they face one of the toughest defenses in the country. The Oregon Ducks come to the Rose Bowl for a midday game Saturday.
Bruins In the Sun
Let’s start with this being UCLA’s first early afternoon game of the entire season. Head coach Chip Kelly has been adamant about how much he dislikes the late night games. “I may be more excited than anybody else in the country because we get to play at 12:30,” Kelly said after the game Saturday night. “It’s an amazing thing. And the entire Pac-12 is all going to kick off before the sun goes down this week.”
He has said repeatedly that college football owes it to the upcoming generations of fans, and potential players, to have the games televised at times easier to watch. He also gave Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff credit for the circumstances with the schedule this week. Truth be told, it’s the television networks that pick the games to televise and which time slot to plug them in to. Saturday is one of the rare cases where the Pac-12 slate of games is superior to that of the other conferences.
Step Two Of Three
Now with more of the country watching, it is time to step up to a whole other level that will be needed to beat Oregon. For much of the season, we have highlighted about how this three-game stretch against Washington, Oregon, and Utah would define the season. The first test got a definitive A-grade. To be honest, two months ago no one thought Washington would be as bad as they are. Jimmy Lake, a highly regarded defensive coach, has a team that is near last in the country in rushing defense. UCLA’s offensive scheme properly jumped all over the opportunity. The Bruins ran up 237 net yards on the ground, against a team that was giving up 181 per game.
The Shortened Offense
The offensive scheme also provided the blueprint for quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to have the first game of the season that was a complete two halves. The success was built on the running game to get to the passing game. And then the passing game rarely asked Thompson-Robinson to take the longer drop in the pocket and scan the field through several progressions in order to go deeper down field. The passing game was shorter, and relied more on quick reaction deliveries. There were even four jet sweep pitches, which count towards the passing stats, and there was a shovel pass to tight end Greg Dulcich. The results led to Thompson-Robinson going 21 of 26 for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
While the yardage may not be eye-popping, it is the shorter passing game that works best for Thompson-Robinson and the offense. The stats being somewhat built around jet sweep pitches and a shovel pass that was months in the making is not negative or criticism on Thompson-Robinson’s game. Just the opposite. It means that four years into the process, the UCLA offensive scheme is finally built around his strengths. He also had a dozen runs for 87 yards and a touchdown. Several of those runs were delayed quarterback draws. It elevates the running game and makes the passing game more efficient.
But this week is being built around preparation for one of the two toughest defenses UCLA will face all season.
That Oregon Defense
Injuries have had a major impact on Oregon this season, on both sides of the ball. The defense has lost all-conference safety Bennett Williams for the season. Linebacker Noah Sewell and defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux have both missed time this season with injuries. Thibodeaux has been on the equivalent of a snap-count for some of the season after suffering a high ankle sprain in week one of the season. But they are both now as healthy as they have been all season. That makes for an extraordinary challenge for UCLA’s offensive game planning.
Thibodeaux had to sit out the first half of the game against Cal last week. He was called for targeting in the second half of the loss to Stanford two weeks ago. The Ducks then had a bye week, so he had to serve the punishment in Friday night’s game. But when he did go in, he single handedly blew up the Cal offensive line and was in the face of quarterback Chase Garbers the rest of the game.
Planning For The Best
Monday, Kelly was asked about Thibodeaux. The coach is usually effusive about opposing players. With Thibodeaux, Kelly said, “He’s a very good player. We have to be aware of where he is.” Pretty low-key considering Thibodeaux is undeniably the best defensive player UCLA will face all season.
He plays both sides of the line and also has dropped into a linebacker role at times. Even when he was missing games, NFL draft boards had him as a top three pick next year. Some have him as high as the top overall pick.
Thompson-Robinson was also asked about Thibodeaux, and called him a, “Very good player.” But the senior quarterback also said his offense and the line in front of him have to go against UCLA edge rusher Mitchell Agude so he thinks the Bruins will be prepared. Agude is very good. He is not Thibodeaux good. There may not be an edge defender elsewhere in the country who is.
Sewell has also missed some snaps this season due to being banged up. Yet he still has 54 tackles through six games to go with three sacks.
Against Oregon’s defense, there is not a lot of time to stand back in the pocket and mull over your progressions. UCLA’s newly found quick hit offense is the most likely way to be able to counter Oregon’s defensive scheme.
Hitting The Big Time
Oregon comes to the Rose Bowl sitting atop the Pac-12 North, where everyone expected them to be, at 5-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play. The Bruins started the season with a projection by oddsmakers to be at 7-8 wins this season. They now come into the game at 5-2 overall, with five games left. They are tied with Arizona State for second place in the Pac-12 South at 2-1. ASU does hold the tiebreak by virtue of its win over UCLA three weeks ago.
UCLA now hits the middle of that three-game stint that everyone had circled on their schedules since Summer. They took care of the first part in Seattle. Now comes the hardest game of the season to date. ESPN is using the UCLA campus to host College Gameday. The number one announcer team is doing the game. They get a prized 12:30 start time. There hasn’t been a bigger game on the schedule for a few years. And then next week they move on to the other “hardest game on the schedule” in Salt Lake City.