Five Things: UCLA vs. California
Redshirt senior running back Demetric Felton carried the ball for 107 yards on the ground in UCLA football’s win over California. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Sam Connon
Nov. 16, 2020 4:59 p.m.
UCLA football (1-1) bounced back from a shootout loss in its season opener with a 34-10 victory over California (0-1) on Sunday. With the win, the Bruins now sit at .500 for the first time since coach Chip Kelly joined the program. Both sides of the ball made major showings in the early morning bout, so here are five key takeaways from the Bruins’ win over the Golden Bears at the Rose Bowl.
A stuffed running back stable
Anyone who was worried about the Bruins’ ground game with Joshua Kelley gone can rest easy.
UCLA pounded the rock all day Sunday, finishing the game with a 63% to 37% run-pass ratio. The Bruins finished the day with 244 rushing yards – the fourth-most they have picked up in a single game under Kelly.
Redshirt senior running back Demetric Felton led the way with 107 yards on 25 carries, and he was one of three Bruins who wound up with 50-plus rushing yards.
Junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson may not be a running back, but his 52 yards on 12 carries played a major role in throwing off the Bears’ run defense. Graduate transfer running back Brittain Brown scored his first touchdown with UCLA to cap off his 71-yard outing.
Overall, the Bruins had four running backs combine for 251 yards from scrimmage, with redshirt sophomore Kazmeir Allen and redshirt freshman Keegan Jones chipping in on the group effort as well.
No one on the 2020 roster is as talented or dominant of a pure ball-carrier as Kelley was for the past two years.
But Kelly and the Bruins can make up for his loss with a dynamic and versatile four-headed running back attack coupled with an experienced dual-threat passer.
Defense defined by aggression
For better or worse, the Bruins are running a much more aggressive defense in 2020.
On Sunday, the better far outweighed the worse.
UCLA’s defense racked up nine tackles for loss, five sacks, five pass breakups and a quarterback hit. Graduate transfer safety Qwuantrezz Knight and redshirt junior linebacker Caleb Johnson both spoke after the game about the importance of getting into the backfield and playing more vertically than they did a week ago, and that shift in philosophy certainly paid off.
Still, going all-in on attacking the pocket has its drawbacks.
The Bruins picked up their second and third roughing the passer penalties in two games, and an offside call negated an interception by redshirt junior cornerback Jay Shaw in the end zone.
Balancing control and aggression is difficult for a college defense in a shortened season, and the Bruins will have to find that balance in the near future.
For now, the aggression is working just fine.
The return of the blur
Kelly has gotten a reputation for being stubborn in his two-plus years at UCLA.
He has routinely pushed back against reporters when they ask why he hasn’t brought the offense he ran at Oregon to Westwood. He has tried to shove square pegs into round holes on the offensive side of the ball just because he wants to run a pro-style offense.
That went out the door Sunday, when the first play the Bruins ran from scrimmage was with 20 personnel – a two-back formation that was successful for Kelly in the past but has only rarely appeared on the field for UCLA.
For the rest of the game, it continued to be a new-look offense for the Bruins.
Thompson-Robinson had 12 carries – none of which were sacks – and he was given full control of the zone read calls. The Bruins almost never huddled up, and they got to the line of scrimmage mere seconds after every play.
The hurry-up offense was on a roll, as UCLA managed to put up 27 points in the first half against what was supposed to be one of the conference’s better defenses.
Only time will tell if this is a game plan that can work week in and week out, but it is a nice return to form for Kelly after his days of breaking records and running up the score in Eugene.
Thompson-Robinson easily outduels Garbers
Outside of USC’s Kedon Slovis entering the season as the Pac-12’s top quarterback, there has not been a lot of consensus when it comes to ranking the rest of the signal-callers in the conference.
Thompson-Robinson would rank anywhere from No. 3 to No. 9, depending on who you ask. Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, after going 7-0 when he played a full game in 2019, earned enough goodwill to get ranked in the top three by many fans and pundits.
The better quarterback on Sunday was clearly the former.
The Bruin finished with more passing and rushing yards, more total touchdowns and nearly double the passer rating of his Golden Bear counterpart.
The two had a tight quarterback battle statistically in 2019, but Garbers’ team won the head-to-head matchup, and he was subsequently anointed the superior quarterback. This time, it was Thompson-Robinson’s squad that came away with the win, and he blew Garbers out of the water on the stats sheet as well.
His journey to the top of the conference is far from over, but Thompson-Robinson certainly solidified his position among the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks Sunday morning.
It’s all wide open
The wild, uncertain and unpredictable year that is 2020 continues to provide new surprises.
Not soon after UCLA’s game against Cal went final Sunday, the Pac-12 announced that next Saturday’s game between Arizona State and Colorado would be canceled. Arizona State didn’t play this week either, and neither did Utah – UCLA’s original Week 2 opponent.
No. 20 USC barely scraped by with a win against Arizona, which has also only played one game this season. The Trojans had to stage another last-minute comeback against an inferior opponent, and their path to the College Football Playoff is getting thinner by the day.
So, sitting at 1-1 and surrounded by underperformers and no-shows, UCLA is surprisingly in a decent spot.
The Bruins are clearly not the favorite to win the Pac-12 South, but Sunday’s turnaround victory and all the preceding chaos proved it could still be in the cards. One COVID-19 case, cancellation or explosive quarter could make the difference this year.
At the very least, UCLA has remained competitive and relevant. At best, the door is still open for a late-season push.