Strong offense in first half drives football’s win over California in home opener
Graduate transfer running back Brittain Brown finished the day with 71 rushing yards and his first touchdown as a Bruin as UCLA football notched its first win of the season over California. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Sam Connon
Nov. 15, 2020 12:55 p.m.
This post was updated Nov. 15 at 6:47 p.m.
For the first time in the Chip Kelly era, the Bruins have won their home opener.
By a comfortable margin, too.
UCLA football (1-1) had less than 48 hours to prepare for its impromptu matchup against California (0-1), but it found a way to beat its Bay Area rival 34-10 Sunday morning. The lack of preparation time and scouting was a result of UCLA’s game against Utah getting canceled because of COVID-19 cases early Friday morning, and the matchup against the Golden Bears wasn’t locked in until later that day.
“Actually, I think it (helped),” said graduate transfer safety Qwuantrezz Knight. “We were able to just play what we do best. What we do best is very good.”
Sunday marked Bill Musgrave’s first game as Cal’s offensive coordinator, so Kelly and his staff had to improvise on a condensed time frame and study up on the former Denver Broncos coordinator’s NFL film.
“Our biggest concern going into the game was what are we going to get offensively, … so we spent a lot of time watching the Broncos tape,” Kelly said. “But I think what we did is just kind of play our offense and our players got a little more settled in.”
Musgrave’s offense was limited to 10 points, and the Bruins kept them off the board for the final 37 minutes of the game.
The 24-point margin of victory was the Bruins’ second-largest under Kelly, only behind their 30-point win over the Bears in 2018.
The final score doesn’t always tell the full story, but it was representative of UCLA’s performance Sunday. The Bruins out-gained the Bears 440-176, out-sacked them 5-0 and finished with more than double their first downs with 23.
Junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson accounted for all four of UCLA’s first-half touchdowns, and they all came after his interception midway through the opening quarter. His 248 yards of total offense fell more than 150 short of what he put up against Colorado last week, but he wasn’t trying to mount a 28-point comeback this time around.
Instead, the Bruins were playing with a lead for three quarters of the game, and they were able to go up-tempo and pick on the Bears’ defense.
“I think that’s the biggest thing we did, was treat this like backyard football back in youth days and get to wake up early and just play ball,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Tempo helped out a lot and, again, we found out early on that was going to be a big key in this game and so we used that to our advantage.”
Thompson-Robinson’s three touchdown passes went to redshirt freshman receiver Charles Njoku, junior receiver Chase Cota and redshirt sophomore receiver Kyle Philips. While Njoku’s 34 yards were the most by a Bruin receiver in the game, redshirt sophomore tight end Greg Dulcich paced the team for the second-straight week with 80 yards of his own.
Even with all of the scoring through the air, it was graduate transfer running back Brittain Brown who put the game away with a 31-yard touchdown run through contact early in the fourth.
“(Brown)’s done some really nice things,” Kelly said. “We didn’t get (Brown) the ball enough last week and part of that was me as a play-caller. We got behind so we didn’t run the ball as much, but we need to be balanced and run the football.”
Brown was the only Bruin running back to score a touchdown, but it was redshirt senior running back Demetric Felton who played the do-it-all role Sunday.
Felton racked up 189 all-purpose yards on a career-high 30 touches, and he said that’s exactly what he wants to do every week.
“This is everything I’ve wanted to do since I’ve stepped foot at UCLA,” Felton said. “It just feels really good to finally be able to help my teammates out and get that W.”
Felton was one of five Bruins who hauled in multiple passes, helping Thompson-Robinson finish with a passer rating above 140 for the second week in a row.
The Bears’ pass attack was nowhere near as successful, as quarterback Chase Garbers finished with just 122 yards, zero passing touchdowns, an interception and a 79.5 passer rating. Cal running back Christopher Brown Jr., who gashed UCLA’s defense for 111 yards on the ground in 2019, finished with 25 on Sunday.
The defense hit both Brown and Garbers behind the line early and often Sunday, as the Bruins picked up nine tackles for loss to go along with their five sacks. Both redshirt senior defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa and redshirt junior linebacker Caleb Johnson finished with 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and it was Johnson who picked off Garbers in the waning minutes of the first half.
“Seeing the ball and running to the ball is something we really preach as a defense that everybody has to do,” Johnson said. “It resulted in me being in the perfect place to pick the ball.”
That interception was the first the Bruins have forced so far this season, and it turned into seven points three plays later. The one UCLA giveaway didn’t lead to any points for Cal, one week after the Bruins were outscored 21-0 off turnovers.
The 54 rushing yards allowed by defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s squad were the fewest by an opposing offense since he and Kelly arrived in Westwood in 2018. Johnson said the transition from allowing 264 rushing yards against Colorado to less than 60 against Cal came about thanks to a shift in mindset over the past week.
“Last week, we weren’t getting vertical as much so we really preached all week, everyone was just trying to get penetration, set the scene, even if we don’t get the tackle,” Johnson said. “We did a good job of stopping the run early so they didn’t even think about doing it no more.”
It will take at least another year before fans can see the Bruins seal a win in the Rose Bowl in the stands, but Sunday’s victory counts in the standings regardless.
Kelly and UCLA are .500, and that’s better than they could have said a week ago.