UCLA football readies for chance at redemption in San Diego State rematch
Redshirt junior quarterback Ethan Garbers rears back on a warmup throw before a game. Garbers is set to see the field once more against San Diego State on Saturday, alongside freshman quarterback Dante Moore and redshirt junior quarterback Collin Schlee. (Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor)
San Diego State
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
By Jack Nelson
Sept. 8, 2023 12:22 p.m.
When the Bruins and Aztecs last clashed four seasons ago, the former fell to a historic low – amid the lows of a rebuild, no less.
They’ll get a rematch with a different kind of momentum in sight.
With a chance at a third consecutive 2-0 start to the campaign, UCLA football (1-0) will battle San Diego State (2-0) on Saturday afternoon at Snapdragon Stadium. The matchup is the first since the Aztecs dealt the Bruins an unprecedented blow – their first loss in the 101-year history between the programs.
“It’s a nameless, faceless opponent,” said senior defensive lineman Dovid Magna. “Whatever happened then is the past, and we’re focused on who we are as a team now and what we’re going to do this weekend against them.”
Magna watched that 2019 loss transpire from the sidelines as a freshman. It punctuated what would become a second consecutive 0-3 start under coach Chip Kelly.
The identity of San Diego State football remains the same – its strong defensive play continues to lead the way.
The Aztecs entered the 2023 season having finished 21st or better nationally in total defense every year since 2013. They’ve notched 13 consecutive winning seasons but just barely sustained that streak with a 7-6 record in 2022 after a program-best 12-2 mark the year beforehand.
Even in light of its narrow wins over an FCS opponent and a Group of Five program, San Diego State’s drop-off doesn’t change Kelly’s mind about what to expect Saturday.
“They’re the same they’ve always been – they’re a very, very strong defensive football team. They’ve been that way for a while now,” Kelly said. “You’re going to have to be on top of it in all three phases, defensively especially.”
From a defender’s standpoint, the trenches are where the Aztecs can also test the Bruins.
“They’re big, they have a good offensive line and they have a good running game going for them,” said redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Keanu Williams. “It’s going to be a physical game, and I just can’t wait to get out there and go get after it.”
UCLA’s season opener provided the first glimpse at a non-Dorian Thompson-Robinson-led offense in four years. Redshirt junior Ethan Garbers and freshman Dante Moore rotated snaps against Coastal Carolina, with Moore under center for five of seven drives in the second half.
Kelly initially stated that redshirt junior quarterback Collin Schlee would see the field as well in the contest, but the Kent State transfer ultimately didn’t get game action because of situational reasons.
That didn’t stop Kelly from following the same plan of attack moving forward. The Bruins will play all three signal-callers against the Aztecs, according to Kelly, but a starter has yet to be identified. It was the Monday before UCLA’s game against Coastal Carolina when Garbers was named the starter.
Whoever shoulders most of the snaps under center Saturday will be tasked with outpacing a run-heavy San Diego State offense. The group is led by quarterback and converted safety Jalen Mayden – the team’s leading rusher – who racked up 132 yards on just eight carries against Idaho State last weekend.
Magna acknowledges that potency on the ground but said it doesn’t sway him from his conviction in his team.
“They’re a downhill run team, they’re good at it. But we’re better, and we’re going to dominate up front,” Magna said. “That’s about it.”