Five Things: UCLA vs. Arizona
Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (left) threw his second interception of the season in UCLA football’s win over Arizona on Saturday night. The Bruins’ signal-caller also had just three passing yards at the halftime break and finished the game with fewer than 100 passing yards.(David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)
By Jon Christon
Oct. 11, 2021 3:29 p.m.
UCLA football (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) beat Arizona (0-5, 0-2) by a score of 34-16 on Saturday night in Tucson, picking up a win against a team that is now the owner of the longest active losing streak in the country with 17 straight losses. Despite recording only three passing yards in the first half, the Bruins rushed their way to their second conference win of the season. Here are the five main takeaways from UCLA’s triumph over Arizona in the desert.
While Dorian Thompson-Robinson earned the win Saturday, he had one of the worst performances of his career.
The senior quarterback threw for an astonishingly low three yards in the first half. Granted, those three yards resulted in a touchdown, but Thompson-Robinson still went 1-of-8 through the air in two quarters of play.
In fact, Thompson-Robinson had as many completions to Wildcats in the first half as he did to Bruins, as he tacked on his second interception of the year in the second quarter. Even Arizona wide receiver Jamarye Joiner finished the first half with more passing yards than the fourth-year signal-caller.
Although he was able to rebound with a 7-of-11, 79-yard passing performance in the second half, the damage had already been done. Thompson-Robinson’s 42.1% completion percentage was his worst of the season, and he became the first Bruin quarterback since Brett Hundley in 2013 to throw for fewer than 100 yards after playing in all 60 minutes.
The senior hasn’t been bad this year, but he hasn’t been particularly good either. Thompson-Robinson has completed 10 or fewer passes in three of his six games in 2021, and while his interception total sits at just two, he has yet to show any sort of polish on deep balls to make the defense respect him.
Why would a defense respect a quarterback who still makes throws like this?
At a certain point, enough has to be enough.
With potentially only six games left in his collegiate career, something needs to click soon for Thompson-Robinson, or else UCLA will have yet another disappointing end to its campaign.
When you look at the box score from Saturday night’s contest, the Bruins’ running backs will catch your eye first.
And for good reason, as junior Zach Charbonnet and redshirt senior Brittain Brown became the first pair of UCLA runners to eclipse the 100-yard mark on the ground since 2014.
However, the Bruins’ offensive line is far from getting the credit it deserves for UCLA’s dominant rushing performance.
The linemen up front routinely opened up holes for the Bruins’ backs, giving them ample time to gather momentum before hitting the hole. For a position group that has dealt with injuries for most of the season, it was a pleasant sight to watch it dominate the way it did in Tucson.
The improved play in the trenches doesn’t just apply to the offense, as the Bruins’ defensive line also had one of its better performances of the season.
One week after failing to record a sack or a tackle for loss, UCLA’s defensive line was able to get into the Arizona backfield early and often Saturday, putting pressure on quarterbacks Jordan McCloud and Gunner Cruz throughout the game. The Bruins’ success at the line of scrimmage helped lead the defense to a season-high-tying three sacks, four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
On both sides of the ball, UCLA was able to have its way with Arizona’s line. Whether it was creating holes for Bruin runners or preventing said holes for Wildcat backs, UCLA won the battle of the trenches by a wide margin Saturday night.
Last week, I gave the Bruins a pass on penalties.
In an anomaly of a performance for many reasons, I thought UCLA’s lack of discipline against No. 18 Arizona State was just a one-week affair for one of the most veteran teams in the country.
But Saturday’s contest proved the penalty plague will persist if something doesn’t change.
The Bruins finished with eight penalties for 95 yards against the Wildcats. While the eight penalties weren’t a season-high on their own, the 95 yards were.
Every one of UCLA’s penalties went for at least 10 yards, including three personal fouls.
While small penalties such as false starts and illegal substitutions are understandable in the heat of the moment, boneheaded personal fouls are avoidable one hundred percent of the time. Why is redshirt senior defensive lineman Datona Jackson going up high at McCloud after he has already thrown the ball?
UCLA won’t be playing teams that are coming into the contest on 16-game losing streaks every week, and unless it does some serious soul searching, the penalties could come back to bite the Bruins.
Bent but didn’t break
At an almost alarming rate, the Bruins allowed the Wildcats to sustain long drives deep into UCLA territory – especially early in the contest.
Of the first four Arizona possessions, three featured more than 60 yards for the home team, with the other clocking in at 47 yards. That trend continued into the second half, as the Wildcats’ first third-quarter possession saw them gain 48 yards on 11 plays.
The extended drives appeared to be the continuation of a disconcerting pattern for the Bruins, who gave up five possessions of greater than 70 yards the week prior to the Sun Devils.
But unlike its matchup against Arizona State where it seemingly couldn’t stop giving up touchdowns, the UCLA defense finished possessions strong against Arizona.
The Bruins allowed only one touchdown Saturday in one of their best defensive showings of the season, holding the Wildcats to only field goals on three of their five longest drives. UCLA also forced its opponent to turn the ball over on downs in Bruin territory after a 15-play possession in the second quarter.
Of note, UCLA didn’t allow any play longer than 23 yards after giving up five plays of 47 yards or more a week prior. The Bruins avoided giving up explosive plays to their opponent and in the process made the Wildcats work for every yard they earned.
Arizona came close, but in the end, UCLA made it just difficult enough to keep the home team off the scoreboard in a major way.
It can be easy to get caught in the moment, so let’s take a step back.
The Bruins are in a good spot at the halfway point of the regular season.
UCLA is 4-2 – tied for its best start to a campaign since 2013. The four wins also are tied for the most wins by a Kelly-coached team in Westwood, but it took the Bruins an extra three games to hit that benchmark in 2019.
With matchups against a bad Colorado team and the burning dumpster fire that is USC on the horizon, UCLA should reach the .500 plateau for the season fairly easily and qualify for its first bowl game since the 2017 Cactus Bowl, making this already the most successful season in recent memory.
UCLA still has its issues – mainly from a passing defense and quarterback perspective – but so far the positives have overwhelmingly outweighed the negatives. The Bruins lead the conference in total points as the offense under coach Chip Kelly has finally kicked into gear.
The losses may have come in embarrassing fashion, but UCLA is right where it needs to be to do some damage – both in the standings and on the field.
Considering how low this program was when Kelly took over, Bruin fans should be appreciative of the fact that the team is finally moving in the right direction.