The Bruins will match up with a familiar foe in their season-opener Thursday.
UCLA football is headed to Cincinnati for a rematch of the 2018 opener, a game in which the Bruins eventually lost by a score of 26-17 after former quarterback Wilton Speight went down in the second quarter with a back injury.
Speight’s replacement in that game – then-freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson – completed 15-of-25 pass attempts for 117 yards in his first collegiate appearance, giving everyone a glimpse at the program’s future signal caller.
“I was a little nervous, a little excited, a little bit of everything,” Thompson-Robinson said. “But this year, I’m going to be more cool, calm and collected and know what I gotta do to get the job done.”
Thompson-Robinson’s time has now arrived with the former four-star recruit and second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2018 penciled in as the official starter for UCLA. Thompson-Robinson said he expects the matchup with Cincinnati to look a lot different than it did a year ago.
“It’s funny because I’ve watched that game multiple times now and every time it’s the same old story of how I was young, inexperienced, didn’t really know the offense,” Thompson-Robinson said. “And looking now, it’s a lot different, this whole team is a lot different, the attitude is different and everything about it.”
However, if Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins are going to claim a victory on Thursday, they will have to overcome a Bearcats defense that shut down the rest of the AAC a season ago.
No team in the American Athletic Conference held its opponents to fewer points or yards per game than Cincinnati did in 2018, as the Bearcats mauled their way to an 11-2 record and a Military Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
In its visit to the Rose Bowl last September, Cincinnati allowed just 162 yards through the air and 144 yards on the ground. However, more than half of UCLA’s rushing yards came on one play – a 74-yard touchdown run by then-freshman running back Kazmeir Allen.
A key area to keep an eye on Thursday will be the Bruins’ offensive line against a Bearcats defensive front that is recovering from the loss of a number of significant contributors, including Marquise Copeland, Cortez Broughton and Kimoni Fitz. The trio combined for 15 of the team’s 32 sacks last season.
UCLA, on the other hand, is returning four of its five starters on the offensive line. Redshirt freshman Alec Anderson – who is expected to replace the transferred Justin Murphy – is the only new face up front for the Bruins.
With the experience of the offensive line, it is reasonable to expect that UCLA will come out looking to attack the trenches early and often with redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley.
Coach Chip Kelly said while he is looking forward to getting back on the field, he is just as excited to see his players’ hard work pay off after a long offseason.
“You’re always eager to start the season,” Kelly said. “This group has really adopted to that philosophy that everything is earned, nothing is given, and now you get a chance to go test it against a really good team and that’s the exciting part.”
UCLA and Cincinnati will kick off from Nippert Stadium at 4 p.m. PST on Thursday night.