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Nelson’s Noggin: Dante Moore’s lackluster performance, mismanagement hinder UCLA football

Freshman quarterback Dante Moore throws the ball during UCLA football’s game against Oregon State. Moore threw three of his nine interceptions against the Beavers. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Jack Nelson

Nov. 28, 2023 4:11 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 28 at 9:06 p.m.

One man absorbed most of the criticism as the Bruins stumbled and sputtered toward a tumultuous end.

His not-so-secret identity is Chip Kelly, the coach playing the favorite in the blame game. All but a smattering of participants are pointing the finger at him.

But as befuddling as his continued employment may be, it’s time to share the scrutiny with his golden goose – a key player that has tugged too hard on his leash.

It’s time to question Dante Moore.

The freshman quarterback for UCLA football capped his first and only season of Pac-12 play Saturday night with a 33-7 home loss to California. It was just about as pretty as the score suggests.

Moore took over for injured redshirt junior counterpart Ethan Garbers at the end of the Bruins’ first drive, eventually receiving the lion’s share of snaps and producing little from them. He totaled 266 yards, one touchdown, a 60.5% completion percentage and three turnovers that were converted into 10 points by the opposition.

Cal wasn’t exactly bringing in a stellar defense. Entering the matchup, the Golden Bears stood No. 125 nationally out of 130 FBS programs in passing yards allowed per game. It was a prime opportunity for Moore to flash promise as the proclaimed signal caller of the future.

All he did was repackage the same old product that lost him the starting job to begin with – a turnover-prone, low-accuracy brand of football.

Following a three-game nonconference run that saw Moore supplant Garbers for the starting role, the freshman would make six appearances and three starts in Pac-12 play, totaling four touchdowns against eight interceptions on 50.6% passing for 995 yards.

Instead of toughening up against competition, he steadily declined – from Utah to Washington State to Oregon State. Each contest, he threw one more interception than the last while never surpassing a 50% completion percentage.

Moore’s downward trajectory placed the offensive burden on the shoulders of his running backs, and it failed against the Utes and the Beavers. He found himself on the bench after a season-worst performance against the latter.

Only once did the Bruins notch a victory against a Pac-12 team with Moore at the helm – a one-score win over a Cougar team that would finish 5-7. In light of his two turnovers that day, the win came in spite of him.

The season’s end revealed the truth. Garbers – not Moore – was the ignitor for the UCLA offense. The Bruins went 4-1 when he attempted double-digit passes and 3-4 when he didn’t.

(Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Redshirt junior quarterback Ethan Garbers is hit by a USC defender while preparing to pass. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Boiling it down to wins and losses rarely justifies a quarterback’s impact, but with winning coming at a premium under Kelly – who’s 34-34 in six years – it means everything.

Moore never found the balance between holding onto the ball for too long and giving up on the play too quickly. The lack of chemistry with his top pass catchers prevented him from truly stretching the field. His inability to roll out made the offense one-dimensional.

A heap of flaws have boxed him into the freshman archetype he was never supposed to conform to.

After all, Moore was far from ordinary when he became the second-highest-ranked recruit in program history. As a five-star prospect ranked No. 3 overall in his class, he was a recruiting landmark for Kelly in Westwood – the biggest quarterback signing ever for the Bruins.

Combining his sky-high ceiling with Kelly’s offensive genius, Moore was supposed to be a program-changer leading the way into the Big Ten. His flipped commitment from Oregon to UCLA was a symbol to rally behind.

But he has instilled little faith. Once dubbed “mature, polished, does not appear to rattle easily,” by high school recruiting analysts, Moore has translated none of those traits to the college landscape.

Immature, raw and easily rattled are all fair descriptors now.

His lack of execution makes him – at least in part – accountable for the Bruins’ shortcomings, and rampant mismanagement has only worsened the situation.

Juggling what he believed to be three viable options in Garbers, Moore and redshirt junior Collin Schlee, Kelly wisely started Garbers against Coastal Carolina. He forced Moore to earn the job with real-game results, and Moore did.

The wise moves ended there.

After observing Moore’s nonconference success turn to in-conference disaster in a five-start span, Kelly handed the keys back to Garbers for Stanford. Except the Cardinal possessed the nation’s second-worst pass defense – all the more reason to give your freshman a confidence boost in a low-stakes situation.

The keys to the offense remained with Garbers after a blowout win. The next opponent – Colorado and its equally dreadful defense – presented the same opportunity, and Kelly again refused to give much-needed experience to his most coveted quarterback.

Kelly’s misplaced faith in veteran options led to his team’s demise in pitiful outings against Arizona and Arizona State. In Tucson, he waited until Garbers was injured in the fourth quarter to switch him out for Moore, despite an offense that was already struggling to find answers.

And despite Moore’s supposed availability a week later, Kelly settled for Schlee. Losing to a conference bottom feeder was not an “emergency situation” by his calculus.

Widely perceived as the quarterback of the future, Moore was never treated like one. Kelly sees him as just another freshman – or at least his actions suggest so.

With Garbers now the apparent future, Moore may become something else entirely.

He could very well end up an opponent – quarterbacking a team other than the one he was destined to lead.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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