UCLA football prepares to start season with game against Bowling Green
UCLA football players practice. The Bruins will open their season Saturday against an unfamiliar opponent. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)
Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
By Francis Moon
Sept. 2, 2022 1:06 p.m.
The Bruins will kick off their 2022 season against an unfamiliar opponent.
For the first time in program history, UCLA football will host a Mid-American Conference team when it welcomes Bowling Green to the Rose Bowl on Saturday. The Bruins and Falcons have never met on the gridiron, and it will be the first time the blue and gold faces a school from the MAC since 2009.
Despite the unfamiliarity and the Bruins being favored by 23 points, coach Chip Kelly said his team can’t overlook its opponent, citing one specific win last season that caught his eye. Though Bowling Green finished its 2021 campaign with a 4-8 record, it took down a Big Ten team in Minnesota last September on the road.
“Minnesota was a nine-win team last year and won a bowl game, so that in its own right will tell you that every week, you have to be prepared for whoever you’re playing,” Kelly said. “That will catch your attention, so that’s one of the games we’ve used in our breakdowns on both sides of the ball.”
The season opener will mark the debut of defensive coordinator Bill McGovern after he was hired to replace Jerry Azzinaro in February. McGovern was formerly the outside linebackers coach under Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles and brings almost 40 years of collegiate and professional coaching experience to Westwood.
The first test for McGovern’s defense will come against quarterback Matt McDonald, who ranked fifth in the MAC last year with 212.9 passing yards per game and threw for 12 touchdowns. McDonald will also be getting back his top three targets in wide receivers Tyrone Broden and Austin Osborne as well as tight end Christian Sims.
Kelly said slowing down Bowling Green’s signal-caller – whose brother and father are both former USC quarterbacks – and his scrambling ability will be key to stopping the Falcons’ offense.
“He’s obviously the first guy that we’ve got to focus on and stop,” Kelly said. “He’s a sharp, really well-coached kid. He also makes a lot of plays off-script. … He’s got his eyes downfield, he’s a lot like (Denver Broncos quarterback) Russell Wilson that way.”
Several defensive players reiterated Kelly’s praise for the opposing quarterback, with redshirt senior defensive back Stephan Blaylock adding that UCLA’s focus will be to keep McDonald in the pocket and be mindful of his play-extending tendencies.
“Once he’s out of the pocket, he’s looking downfield to keep the play going, throw the ball still,” Blaylock said. “They have many targets on offense, but he’s the main threat.”
But it was Bowling Green’s defense that caught the eye of redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson as he prepares for his final season opener heading into his fifth year.
“Really good front seven, experienced secondary,” Thompson-Robinson said. “We’ve got our hands cut out for us on the offensive side of the ball, for sure.”
Thompson-Robinson captained the highest-scoring offense in the Pac-12 last season, finishing first in passing efficiency, passing yards per completion, total offense and total touchdowns. The quarterback will have three new first-string targets to throw to, however, including two returning players who moved up the depth chart.
Redshirt senior Jake Bobo, a transfer from Duke, and redshirt juniors Kam Brown and Kazmeir Allen will be the top three wide receivers in the pecking order.
Kelly said he is expecting big things out of the receiving trio, pinpointing Allen’s ability to open up the field as a critical factor for the offense.
“Obviously with Kaz, you’ve got a guy who’s got outstanding speed,” Kelly said. “He’s done a great job for us kick returning, and he’s really done a good job as we transitioned him to wideout of being able to stretch the defense and get behind people.”
After starting no better than 1-2 through the first three games of each of his first three seasons at the helm – including an 0-6 record against nonconference opponents – Kelly and the Bruins have a chance to improve upon their 2-1 mark in nonconference play last season with no Power Five matchups on the schedule until the Pac-12 season starts.
Beyond September though, Thompson-Robinson said the team is focusing on striving to reach the lofty goals it has set for the campaign by taking it a day at a time.
“Our mindset and mission has been to win it all this year, and that’s the habits that we’re putting in on a day-to-day basis,” Thompson-Robinson said.
The Bruins’ season will kick off at 11:30 a.m. in Pasadena.