Five Things: UCLA vs. North Carolina Central
Coach Chip Kelly smiles while looking at his playbook during No. 22 UCLA football’s game against North Carolina Central. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)
Sept. 19, 2023 4:47 p.m.
No. 22 UCLA football (3-0) picked up the biggest win of the coach Chip Kelly era over North Carolina Central (2-1) on Saturday afternoon, thrashing the Eagles 59-7. Throughout the game, Kelly called on five of his six rostered quarterbacks to lead the offense. Sports editor Joseph Crosby gives his five main takeaways from the game through the lens of the quintet of signal callers.
Freshman quarterback Dante Moore earned the start for UCLA football for the second week in a row.
He didn’t disappoint.
In last week’s contest against San Diego State, Moore opened the scoring on UCLA’s third drive with a one-play, 60-plus-yard touchdown pass.
This time, he did it on the very first offensive snap of the day.
Moore found wide receiver Kam Brown on a post route for a 67-yard touchdown pass. The senior finished the day as the Bruins’ leading receiver with just two catches for 74 yards, indicative of Kelly’s successful reliance on the ground game Saturday.
Moore still had one more passing attack in him before the team could start fully switching to the run. The freshman involved his other starting wide receiver – redshirt sophomore J.Michael Sturdivant – on the Bruins’ third drive of the day for a 30-yard touchdown pass to put the Bruins on top 21-0 halfway through the first quarter.
After being briefly pulled from the game following the touchdown to Sturdivant, Moore saw the field once more in the second quarter, leading the Bruins’ lone field-goal drive of the day. He finished his second career start with eight completions on 12 attempts for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
Moore may not have posted the same yardage or completion numbers as he did against SDSU, but he got the job done, as UCLA led by three scores after just eight offensive plays.
The freshman continues to prove himself, and whether Kelly chooses not to explicitly name a starter ahead of the Pac-12 opener against No. 11 Utah, it’ll be a surprise if Moore isn’t under center for the first plays in Salt Lake City.
Moore may have been the day’s leader in the air, but redshirt junior Collin Schlee showed his fellow quarterbacks how to get things done on the ground.
The only dual threat out of the backfield among the trio of himself, Moore and redshirt junior Ethan Garbers, Schlee has displayed his running ability against both SDSU and NC Central.
And on Saturday, the Kent State transfer showcased that he could thrive on his legs just as well as Moore does with his arm.
Schlee opened his day with a 57-yard touchdown run, the second-longest rush of the game. After making his Bruin debut against SDSU, Schlee continued to display the mobility that Moore and Garbers lacked.
He went on to make two more rushes near the goal line, finding the end zone on the second attempt for his first multi-touchdown game as a Bruin.
Schlee was just one of five total Bruin rushers to eclipse the 50-yard threshold as UCLA heavily relied on its running game after Moore exited the game. He did get to try his hand in the passing attack but completed only one pass on four attempts while throwing an interception.
That said, Schlee exited Kent State as one of the program’s top quarterbacks after a season in which he finished top 10 in single-season passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage.
If Kelly continues to cycle quarterbacks into conference play, Schlee could very well get the chance to prove he is as good with his arm as he has been on his legs.
Garbers was the Bruins’ presumptive starter heading into the season.
In fact, he’s still the only quarterback to be formally named as the starter before any game, as Kelly declined to announce Moore as the starter ahead of either game against SDSU or NC Central.
Garbers had a strong first drive in his season debut but has since struggled. He followed up that opening touchdown with two interceptions while being outplayed by Moore for the rest of the game against Coastal Carolina.
Saturday’s performance was more of the same.
By the time Garbers entered the game, Kelly had long abandoned the passing game. Garbers did get one opportunity to attempt a pass, which the veteran Bruin connected for 13 yards to senior wide receiver Kyle Ford. But beyond that one completion, Garbers had little opportunity to usurp Moore or Schlee on the depth chart.
Much like Garbers, Ford has struggled to find his ground with UCLA this season. A four-star transfer prospect from USC – and a five-star recruit out of high school – Ford has seen limited success in the Bruins’ three games.
After picking up two receptions in each of the first two games, Ford failed to reel in three of his four targets Saturday.
While Garbers is unlikely to see further regular incorporation into the Bruins’ offense as the season continues, Ford’s involvement could add another layer to a strong receiving room, particularly with Pac-12 play on the horizon.
The quarterbacks just need to be sure to hit him in stride.
Senior Chase Griffin is well known for his off-the-field accomplishments.
The two-time NIL Male Athlete of the Year is frequently seen as a pioneer in the nascent name, image and likeness field.
But Saturday, he showed that he could still guide an offense.
Griffin took his first snap since Sept. 24, 2022, against the Eagles, rushing for nine yards on a quarterback keeper in his first play. After the rush, Griffin – much like Garbers and redshirt freshman Justyn Martin – was relegated to handoff duty for the majority of his outing.
The running back duo of redshirt junior Anthony Adkins and redshirt senior Colson Yankoff powered the Bruins’ offense for the remainder of the drive following Griffin’s run, with the pair combining for 74 yards and a touchdown for the final UCLA score of the game.
The drive capped off a six-touchdown ground performance– the most since 2015 – for the Bruins on a day in which the team rushed for 404 yards, two more than they tallied against Arizona State last season and the most since 2010 against Washington.
Through three games, UCLA’s rushing game has dominated defenses with the combination of sophomore T.J. Harden, junior Carson Steele, Adkins and Yankoff.
And Saturday, Griffin had the chance to be a part of that group for the first time since his last rushing attempt in 2020.
Martin is no stranger to blowouts.
Before making his UCLA debut Saturday, Martin led Inglewood High School to a 106-0 victory over rival Morningside High School in 2021. The former four-star recruit threw for 13 touchdowns in a game in which he never left the field.
While Martin was the lone Bruin quarterback to not lead a scoring drive against the Eagles, he did begin his debut in style.
Martin held onto the ball for a quarterback keeper in his first play, mimicking Griffin who did the same on the drive prior. But where Griffin had a relatively uneventful nine-yard carry, Martin brought more flair to the field in a way eerily reminiscent of former Bruin quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
The redshirt freshman hurdled a defender, and it nearly worked if not for another Eagle tackling Martin from behind to prevent an even longer run than the already-gained first down.
Kelly also gave Martin the chance at a pass, but a collapsing pocket led to a sack before he could have a chance to throw the ball.
While Martin didn’t lead a touchdown drive, UCLA’s offensive performance as a whole boosted what was an already efficient team.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly developed SP+ as a measure of team efficiency, adjusted for both opponent and tempo. After Saturday’s contest, the Bruins leapfrogged three spots to No. 19 overall in SP+ as well as ranking No. 14 on offense.
If the Bruins take on Pac-12 opponents in the same way they have faced nonconference ones, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 2023 group reach its predecessor’s peak – a squad that was top 10 in scoring and total offense.