It is the biggest weekend for UCLA football in years. ESPN GameDay will be on campus prior to the game at the Rose Bowl against Oregon. It is the first time they have done a UCLA home game since 1998. Fans and social media have been following every bolt and every nail that gets used in building the stage on campus. Whom the guest picker will be is a new, major topic. The network attention is good for the school and the program. But at some point, fun camp will end and there will be a game played that is far more critical to the program’s national profile.
The Bruins come in at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play. They are tied for second in the Pac-12 South, a game behind Utah. The Ducks stand alone in first place in the Pac-12 North at 5-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play.
The Best Of The Best
Oregon also comes into the game with some of the best individual players on defense that you will see anywhere this year. Kayvon Thibodeaux has been limited by a high ankle sprain since early in the season, but even at 80%, he is one of the top two edge rushers in the country. Some NFL scouts have him as the top overall pick in next Spring’s NFL draft. He is the very definition of a game changer. Noah Sewell comes from a family of elite college football players. His older brother Penei was an offensive tackle for Oregon in 2018 and 2019 and won the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country in that second year. The younger Sewell already has 54 tackles this season as a linebacker in his second season in Eugene.
The battle of UCLA’s run game against the Oregon defense is the kind of match-up feature games are made of.
Earlier this week, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said he was most impressed with the physicality of UCLA’s offense, and the run game in particular with Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. “They are the most physical runners that we have seen,” he said. “They run behind their pads. They’re big, powerful.” He said the key for his defense would be getting to them early. “You’ve got to get your defenders to the ball carriers. They typically don’t go down on first contact.”
Cristobal also gave notice on the ability of UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to make an impact with his legs. “He’s a guy that can hurt you with explosive plays; designed runs, read runs, the RPO game, and then broken plays where he can take off.”
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said he is, “Pleased but never satisfied,” with where his offense is in its physicality. “We can coach it better. We can execute it better. Part of our identity is that we have to run the football in order to be successful.” He added, “When you get to eight games in, everybody is what they are. You know what type of team each team is that you are playing.”
Questions remain on the other side of the ball. UCLA is 122nd in the country, out of 130 teams, when it comes to pass defense. It long ago stopped being a matter of shutting down the opponents’ run games and forcing them to pass. UCLA has not played a good run team in several weeks. They are playing pass-first teams and giving up just under 300 yards per game in the air.
That makes the Oregon game very complex. Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown is not as adept at throwing deep as many other quarterbacks that UCLA has faced this season. He is much more of an intermediate passer. He has completed only 59% of his passes and is averaging about eight yards per completion. That means the UCLA defensive backs are less likely to have to spend their day on an island in one-on-one coverage deep down field. That is a place where they have been most vulnerable this season.
What Brown, a transfer from Boston College, does do well is throw on the run. Oregon utilizes a lot of sprint out plays for him, and he has made it pay dividends with eight touchdown throws. He also does not make many mistakes. He has only one interception on the season. Kelly said, “You’ve got to worry about him not only throwing the football, but you’ve got to worry about him pulling it down and tucking it with him.” Indeed, Brown also has 242 yards rushing to go with five touchdowns.
The Ducks started the season as a two-headed running back unit. They lost starter CJ Verdell for the season with a leg injury two weeks ago against Stanford. That leaves the bulk of the carries for Travis Dye. He responded to his first game as the primary ball carrier with 145 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in the win over Cal.
What’s At Stake
UCLA ranks 17th in the country in rushing. Oregon is 23rd. This game has a dramatically different look than any one the Bruins have played yet this season. And with more riding on it for UCLA than any other game to date. This three-game stretch against Washington, Oregon, and Utah was known long ago to be the part of the schedule that would likely define the season for the Bruins.
Kelly has schooled all his players to talk about how they just focus one day at a time. But as a transfer from Alabama, UCLA linebacker Ale Kaho has seen his share of high-profile national games. The Bruins haven’t had one of those in quite a few years. “It’s good for us, our team, the university, the fans, and the whole community of LA,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity. But we are more focused on staying focused on our game plan.”
Playing to stay in the Pac-12 South race; playing for a significant bowl game, and not just accepting being bowl-eligible; and playing to be part of the national conversation on a larger college football scale for the first time in many years. That is all that is at stake Saturday. Other than that, it is just another day at the Rose Bowl.