Five Things: UCLA vs. Hawai’i
Coach Chip Kelly brought back the visor in UCLA football’s 44-10 victory over Hawai’i on Saturday, a game that gave him his first nonconference win as the Bruins’ head coach. The contest also marked Kelly’s first season-opening win in Westwood. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Jon Christon
Aug. 30, 2021 5:32 p.m.
UCLA football (1-0) started its season with a bang, defeating Hawai’i (0-1) with a final score of 44-10. The victory marked the Bruins’ first season-opening win since 2017 and their largest such win since 2013. Here are five takeaways from UCLA’s dominant start to the 2021 season.
Return of Visor Chip
After years of dominance at Oregon wearing a visor, coach Chip Kelly ditched his patented headwear in his first three years in Westwood, instead opting for a full baseball cap.
Kelly returned to his past look Saturday, citing he was partial to the “company that makes them.” In other words, Under Armour didn’t make visors up to his standards.
But with a Nike visor back on their head coach’s head, the Bruins looked similar to Kelly’s Duck teams of old in their season opener, and it started from the sidelines.
For one of the first times in Kelly’s UCLA tenure, it truly seemed like the fourth-year coach found a rhythm in terms of play-calling. The Bruins’ 24 first-quarter points were the second-most points scored in a single quarter by UCLA in the Kelly era and the most first-quarter points for UCLA since 1988.
The fast start was due in part to a return to the up-tempo offense Bruin fans have been calling for since 2018. UCLA routinely rushed up to the line of scrimmage, catching the Hawai’i defense off guard and repeatedly picking up chunks of yardage. The Bruins gained the majority of their 392 total yards on first down and averaged 6.9 yards per first-down play.
Kelly’s return to form also included a heavy dose of the ground game early and often – a true Kelly play-calling virtue. Forty-three of UCLA’s 65 total plays were rushing attempts, and the team picked up nearly 150 rushing yards in the first quarter alone.
It may be wise to take all this with a grain of salt given the opponent, but it appears a classic fast-paced, run-first offense has finally made its arrival in Westwood.
With this kind of success, I’d venture to guess that the visor will be back next week.
A defensive statement
As impressive as the offense looked, it was the defense that stole the show.
While the quality of opponent was a big factor here, UCLA’s defense under defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro has struggled against even the weakest opponents.
Entering the season-opening contest, the Bruins had lost six straight nonconference games with Azzinaro manning the defense, and four of them came to non-Power Five opponents. In each of those games, UCLA allowed 20 or more points.
But the script flipped Saturday. The Rainbow Warriors’ 10 points are tied for the second-fewest points given up by a Bruin defense since the start of the 2018 season, with UCLA routinely disrupting the Hawai’i offense at the line of scrimmage.
The Bruins only sacked Rainbow Warrior quarterback Chevan Cordeiro twice, but they recorded seven tackles for loss and grabbed two interceptions. For a pass defense that has had its fair share of struggles over the last few years, it limited a somewhat potent Todd Graham offense to just 243 passing yards on 53 attempts.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of all this was the integration of new and old on the defensive end. Everybody got in on the action, from UCLA veterans like senior linebacker Mitchell Agude and senior defensive back Mo Osling III to newcomers such as freshman defensive back Devin Kirkwood and redshirt junior transfer linebacker Ale Kaho.
Next week will be a bigger test with No. 16 LSU coming to Pasadena, but this is as good of a defensive showing you can ask for to start a season.
“The best running back duo in the country”
After Saturday’s contest, senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had big praise for the newfangled running back duo of redshirt senior Brittain Brown and junior Zach Charbonnet.
The fourth-year quarterback called them the nation’s top backfield pairing in the postgame media session, and they sure looked the part Saturday.
Following an initial three-and-out by UCLA’s offense to start the game that featured three straight play calls for Thompson-Robinson either running or throwing, Kelly turned to the Brown-Charbonnet tandem on the next possession, splitting six carries evenly between them for 73 yards and a Charbonnet touchdown.
The pair of running backs aren’t your typical backfield duo, especially compared to last year’s primary faces at the position. The 6-foot-1-inch Brown was then partnered with the 5-foot-10-inch Demetric Felton, whose speed and quickness nicely complemented Brown’s power approach.
However, Brown and Charbonnet’s overlapping skill sets this season allow Kelly to really commit to the rushing attack. Both running backs stand at 6-foot-1-inch, weigh more than 200 pounds and offer a unique blend of power and agility. If one needs a break, Kelly can bring the other in and won’t get any drop-off in production.
The duo wasn’t called upon as much in the second half with the victory already all but secured, but the pair still finished with nearly 200 rushing yards between them and four total touchdowns – a good start for the so-called nation’s best.
Thompson-Robinson’s continued struggles
Considering the game Thompson-Robinson had, it makes sense he was so appreciative of his backfield partners.
It was another rough outing for the quarterback, who has been up and down in his prior three years with the Bruins. Thompson-Robinson completed just 10 of his 20 pass attempts and threw for under 200 yards for the ninth time in his last 17 games as the starter.
However, Thompson-Robinson’s poor showing transcended the stat sheet, as he looked hesitant throughout the game and made a habit of overthrowing open receivers.
One positive from the outing is the signal-caller seemed to settle down in the second half after shaking off some rust. The first drive of the third quarter featured four straight completed passes, including a nice throw on the 44-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior running back Kazmeir Allen.
The Las Vegas native also didn’t register a single turnover in the game, a positive outcome for a player who has turned the ball over more than 20 times across the last two seasons.
But Thompson-Robinson had a pretty wide margin of error Saturday with the success of the defense and running game giving him ample room to overcome his struggles.
Games this year will come down to the simple question of whether or not Thompson-Robinson is good enough to lead a winning team.
If Saturday was any indication, the quarterback still has a ways to go before the answer to that question is a confident “yes.”
I wasn’t at the Rose Bowl over the weekend, but at least from what I saw on TV, the new Jordan Brand uniforms check every box.
Many were toning down expectations of the uniform changes in the offseason, saying the changes to the jerseys were cut minor and would have little effect in terms of the audience. I really wasn’t expecting too much, but Saturday’s game showed how little tweaks can really make an impact on even the most classic of uniforms.
Although subtle, the changes were profound. The gold on the jerseys is actually gold, a stark contrast to the brown Under Armour put on the pants and helmets the last four seasons.
The shorter shoulder stripes help complement the subtlety of the rest of the uniform, and the numbers on the jerseys looked crisper and cleaner than years past. The new Jordan Brand accessories really made it all pop on the field, and the Jumpman on the shoulder never hurt anyone either.
Debuting those uniforms on a sunny day at the Rose Bowl – one of the most aesthetically pleasing stadiums in sports – was the cherry on top of a near-perfect season opener for UCLA.