For all the improvements UCLA appears to have shown this season, one thing became clear Saturday afternoon. The Bruins are still not at that prime time football level as the Ducks pop UCLA, 34-31. Even with all the build-up of ESPN GameDay being there, and a midday game at home, the Bruins were dominated in the last three quarters. They drop to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in conference play. They are closing in on being eliminated from the Pac-12 South title race. Now, they play for bowl eligibility and maybe a decent bowl game down the road.
The Lead So Few Saw
The game was full of missed opportunities for UCLA. They got out to an early 14-0 in the first quarter. Many in the eventual crowd of 55,675 didn’t see it. They were caught in huge lines outside the stadium in the new proof-of-vaccination protocol. Last Word received multiple messages from people who made it clear there were many unaware of the specific procedures and thus it held things up at the entrance gates. UCLA spent a huge amount of time during the week promoting hosting ESPN. Much less time reminding people of the new protocols to get into the game.
The Bruins opened the game going 75 yards on 12 plays. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was a smooth four for four passing for 27 yards. The passing game was short and quick to try to counteract the pressure for Oregon’s elite defensive players Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell. Zach Charbonnet blew a hole up the middle from one yard out for the touchdown and UCLA had a 7-0 lead on its first drive.
Later in the quarter, Tom Snee’s punt was blocked by Martell Irby and recovered at the Oregon 30-yard line. Four plays later, Thompson-Robinson ripped a pass to Kazmeir Allen in the middle of the end zone for the 14-0 lead.
The Lead That Vanishes
And that was the peak of the momentum for the Bruins. UCLA had outscored its opponents 76-18 in the first quarter this season, so early leads are common. Keeping them is another problem altogether.
Oregon’s Anthony Brown went to what he does best. He just did it much earlier in the game than he has been in recent weeks. With Brown, sprinting out and throwing short paces on the run. Oregon patiently moved downfield into the red zone. A lack of discipline which is generally unimaginable on such veteran teams like UCLA reared its head. Senior defensive back Quentin Lake lined up offsides on two consecutive plays. That gave Oregon the ball at the one-yard line and gave Travis Dye and easy run up the middle for the touchdown. The drive used 14 plays and burned more than nine minutes off the clock.
If all you do is look at the statistics from the game, it looks like Dye had a terrible game. But he had four touchdowns, so there is that.
Nicholas Barr-Mira missed a 35-yard field goal that would have extended the UCLA lead to 17-7. Instead, Oregon kept going to its quick timing, shortened passing game that Brown is so effective with. The Ducks went 80 yards in 11 plays that ended with a four-yard touchdown run from Dye.
One Team Adjusted
The Ducks also adjusted defensively. In addition to relying on moving the blitzes, they also started bringing a safety up closer to the box, daring Thompson-Robinson to beat them by going downfield. It has been said repeatedly, that is not his strong suit. His accuracy wavers, and he spends too much time in the pocket. Case in point, with UCLA driving towards the end of the half, Thibodeaux battered Thompson-Robinson in the backfield and he fumbled the ball. It was recovered by Sean Rhyan, but it was a loss of eight yards. They had to settle for a 37-yard Barr-Mira field goal and the 17-14 lead.
The stats at the half would have indicated the game was even. Even the score would tell you UCLA was doing well. They outgained Oregon 204-202 in total yards. But the visuals told a different story. Even though Brown’s completion is horrible when trying to go more than 20 yards downfield, the UCLA defensive backs were still giving the same cushion to the receivers that they give when playing pocket passing quarterbacks. The Ducks had outscored UCLA 14-3 in the second quarter, and you could imagine the wheels turning on the halftime adjustments.
Ducks Keep Control
Oregon came out in the second half with almost exclusively the short passing game and the Ducks moved expeditiously downfield. Brown completed passes for three, 16, 29, and another for 16 to put them at the UCLA one-yard line. From there, the predictable play of Travis Dye up the middle gave them the touchdown and 21- 17 lead.
UCLA’s response was a three-and-out series. Then punter Luke Akers dropped the snap and Oregon took over at the UCLA 22-yard line. How far had things fallen? The official threw flag for a targeting call that was overturned upon review. But when he threw the flag it hit Akers in the head.
That was a lot of what was happening to UCLA in the second half. Brown quickly took Oregon to the end zone again, from the UCLA 22-yard line with Dye taking it the final five yards The PAT hit the upright, but the lead was now 10 at 27-17 at the end of the third quarter. Oregon had now outgained UCLA by 100 yards of total offense on 10 fewer plays.
With the Oregon lead growing, UCLA started asking Thompson-Robinson to go downfield more. Throwing from the pocket, under heavy duress from the Oregon front seven, he threw two passes that sailed over the heads of the receivers near the goal line. Oregon took over at its own 38-yard line and a few plays later, Brown ran right up the middle for 43 yards and a touchdown. The lead was now an insurmountable 34-17 and Oregon had scored 20 unanswered points.
Bruins Try To Answer
UCLA did mount a comeback. Thompson-Robinson contributed a two-yard touchdown run. And then late in the fourth quarter, from the pistol formation, Brittain Brown took it in from a yard out.
The Bruins had one more effort left in them. They held Oregon without any points on its next drive.
Thompson-Robinson got the Bruins to midfield with a little under two minutes left in the game. But on a sprint-out throw, he was sandwiched between Thibodeaux and Kristian Williams. Thompson-Robinson had to be helped off the field. UCLA, as its way, did not have anything to report on the specifics of his injury. But as he left the field after the game, he had visible tears in his eyes.
Ethan Garbers came in and completed a couple of passes to get the Bruins to the Oregon 38-yard line. But he was picked off by DJ James and the comeback was over. So was the race for the Pac- 12 South for the Bruins.
It was a big week for UCLA that did not live up to hopes on the field as much as it did in other venues.
Opportunities In The Rear View Mirror
After the game UCLA head coach Chip Kelly talked about the mistakes and the penalties. He said there was an obvious need to clean it up going into Utah next week.
“It was a huge opportunity,” Kelly said. “And we just came up a little short. The self-inflicted wounds as we talked about earlier, the illegal procedures and the lining up offsides, you know, we can fix those things and not hurt ourselves.”
As anticipated, Thibodeaux was a problem for UCLA. He finished the game with six solo tackles, two sacks and four-and-half tackles for loss. Kelly said UCLA tried different things to keep him at bay. “We slid the protection to him. We kept maxing protection, put the tight end on them, and we tried to give him as many different looks as possible,” he said. It was a mismatch all day. The offensive line was having little success, so tight ends trying to stop him was of little help.
The Bruins are now 2-3 at home this year with the remaining contests being at the Rose Bowl being against the low-end Colorado and Cal teams. A game that was hyped-up leaves little to expect in terms of future home crowds. Many had already headed to the exits when UCLA mounted its short-lived comeback. What there is for the rest of the season depends heavily on the outcome at Utah. That game, due to UCLA’s loss today, will now be a night game.