The Eye Test: UCLA Dominates Disheveled Southern Cal
Also, Chip Kelly might be keeping his job for another year, which is fun and good for my psyche.
Alright, we’ll get to the Southern Cal part of this in a second, including an attempt at reading how Chip Kelly’s job status will go in the next week or so, but let me start by talking about the Colorado game. You may have noticed I did not do the Eye Test last week, which I apologize for, but work and basketball caught up to me and meant I had to prioritize different things instead of this column. It probably did not help that the game was rather boring; UCLA has way more talent than Colorado, and despite how that first half went, it was always just going to be a question of when those facts would come to the surface.
Anyway, let’s get into this game itself. Short versions for a bunch of the categories are on track today.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson always seems to save his best performances for the Crosstown Rivalry game. 2019 and 2020 featured exemplary performances from Thompson-Robinson, only to be let down by his supporting cast. This year, Thompson-Robinson was not going to be denied the victory. After throwing interceptions on his first two pass attempts (and nearly throwing a third on his third attempt) Dorian was lights out, ending the game 16-22 with 349 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air, while adding 46 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Dorian did everything in this game, hitting the deep pass, nailing the intermediate throws, calmly running for solid gains when needed, even providing Trojan fans with something of value by signing autographs after scoring touchdowns.
More than anything, the victory over Southern Cal was a celebration of Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and the sheer joy he brought to this game is certainly a factor for why many are now willing to keep Chip Kelly with some changes. Which all makes sense; DTR’s final play of this game, where he finally landed the hurdle he’s been searching for all season en route to his final touchdown of the game, has already enshrined itself into season highlight packages. But we’ll get to that later - right now, I just want to again celebrate Thompson-Robinson finally enshrining himself into the hallowed history of this rivalry like he’s always deserved to.
Running Backs: A-
The UCLA run game is not one that automatically dominates from the get-go, but one that gets stronger as a game progresses. That played out in this game, as the Bruins ran for 92 yards in the first half and 168 in the second. Explosive runs followed a similar pattern: the Bruins had three of them in the first half (one by DTR) and five in the second half (again, one by DTR). The Bruins added 1.4 yards per run in the second half as well, and just ground Southern Cal into a fine paste. Brittain Brown was noticeably absent in this one, but Zach Charbonnet was more than up to the task, ultimately running 28 times for 167 yards. Also, shout out to Ethan Fernea, who got injured at the start of the year, yet didn’t give up and kept working hard, and saw that work pay off with a beautiful 42-yard touchdown run to help the Bruins break the 60 point mark.
How much is this grade the fault of a Southern Cal defense that hates the very concept of covering a receiver downfield? A good amount! Kazmeir Allen basically lived in a spot 10 yards past the Trojan safeties, as he caught three passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Kyle Philips did his usual work, absolutely destroying the Trojans underneath for 60 yards and two touchdowns on his own. Greg Dulcich got to be a deep threat in his two catches, going for 75 yards. Kam Brown almost became a decoy as the Trojans were afraid of him going deep, instead hitting underneath routes fairly easily. Michael Ezeike continued his late-season arrival, catching a pass for 26 yards and almost scoring a touchdown in the process.
Offensive Line: A-
Perfectly fine! Perhaps their best performance in weeks, and likely due to the fact that, again, Southern Cal is bad at defense in general. The Bruins were able to grind things out in the run game, while Dorian Thompson-Robinson got a pretty clean pocket to work from for the majority of the game. Not much here, really.
I can’t give a bad grade to this one really. The Bruins were a little shaky at the start, but ultimately if you put up 62 points and 609 yards, you’re ultimately doing something right.
Run Defense: B+
Southern Cal generally cannot run the ball, so UCLA seemed content to put more guys into coverage against the Trojan’s air raid attack. Seemed reasonable, all things considered.
Pass Defense: B
Again, perfectly fine considering Southern Cal was going to go to the air. Jaxson Dart was making his first start for the Trojans, and he looked the part of a true freshman at times. What was nice to see was UCLA getting some pressure (again, probably helps that the Trojans have been absolutely terrible at developing their linemen, but you take what you can get). I felt Jay Shaw did ok in coverage, with Gary Bryant in particular just making some nice catches.
Fine? Yeah, fine feels like the best way to describe this. Southern Cal doesn’t lack talent, but they do lack cohesive ability. UCLA seemed to really buckle down in the 2nd and 4th quarters (more on the tactical reason later) but you have to give credit to this group for not letting the Trojans grab any sort of momentum. I wasn’t super thrilled with allowing the Trojans to drive, but again, more of a tactical complaint than anything the players actually did.
If this grade was just for Kazmeir Allen breaking the back of Southern Cal fans with his touchdown return, this would be an A, but alas. Luke Akers actually saved one of his better punts of the year for this one, which was nice, while Nick Barr-Mira continues his late-season backslide by missing his lone FG attempt from 46 yards.
Offensive Gameplan: A
You have to respect Chip Kelly for recognizing all the various ways that Southern Cal was bad at defense and continually attacking them in those spots. Southern Cal can’t defend a deep pass to save their lives, and their defensive line can’t hold up over the length of a game. Thus: UCLA just kept beating Southern Cal deep, and then ground them into a fine paste in the second half. Chip Kelly can occasionally break and refuse to do basic offensive things, but he managed to figure it out for the entirety of the rivalry game which was a nice change of pace.
Defensive Gameplan: B-
I’m still unsure why UCLA tried to be so aggressive to start the game. It’s an Air Raid offense that is designed to take advantage of aggression and attack soft spots in a defense. More specifically, it is Southern Cal’s Air Raid offense minus their best receiver. This would have been the time to trust that your base defense would more than hold its own against a bunch of undeveloped linemen and receivers, which is what happened for parts of this game. The other parts, where UCLA kept blitzing to sometimes-disastrous results, let Southern Cal go on long drives and score touchdowns. Against a true freshman quarterback making his first start in the rivalry game, the game plan should have been to flood the defensive backfield and make him make the correct decision every single time, and while that eventually was the plan, it is bonkers that it took so long to happen.
Ok, this is where I move past the game and talk about what the plan likely is for UCLA going forward. This is not based on any insider knowledge, just some reading of tea leaves. Also, this all relies on UCLA winning today against UC Berkeley so, grain of salt and all that.
First, I think Chip Kelly will still be the coach of this team next year. I don’t think that is the correct decision, but it may be the pragmatic one for an athletic department that is currently focused on stemming the bleeding as much as possible. To wit: they don’t want to pay a buyout if they can avoid it, and a potential 8-4 prior to the bowl game gives enough cover to stay the course to an extent.
Now, this does not mean there will be no changes, and I think it is likely Martin Jarmond will offer something in the way of a Harbaugh extension. A Harbaugh extension is based on the one Jim Harbaugh got at Michigan last year, which gave him an extension but made the buyout a negligible amount. It also required Harbaugh to make major changes to his coaching staff, which is how Don Brown finally left Ann Arbor and ended up at Arizona this year. The extension ended up revitalizing Michigan by bringing in fresh ideas and set an example that Nebraska is now regretting using with Scott Frost a few weeks ago.
For UCLA, giving out a Harbaugh extension is fairly simple. Chip gets extended at the same price he’s currently at, but with a greatly-reduced buyout that Kelly would agree to as it would make it easier for him to jump ship back to the NFL if he so desires. Also as part of this, the defensive staff would see a major overhaul, with Jerry Azzinaro in particular riding off into the sunset. I would not expect much of this group to stick around, as they in particular need an influx of fresh ideas and much-better recruiting ability; Johnny Nansen might be the only guy who keeps his job in this group.
Is this perfect? Not by any stretch. UCLA’s nonconference is much worse next year and seems primed to set up a fools-gold situation heading into conference play, and the Pac-12 should be bad enough that UCLA should be competing for the conference title. Again, a failure to do so likely will come because UCLA can’t beat good teams, not because the Bruins lost to a bad team. That’s the floor for Chip Kelly’s program here, and unfortunately, that might also be the ceiling.
Nothing like playing Southern Cal to remind you what actually-bad football looks like.
Offense grade: A (4.0)
Defense grade: B (3.0)
Special Teams grade: B+ (3.3)
Coaching grade: B (3.0)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Southern Cal Trojans: B+ (3.33)
And as a reminder, here are the scores from past games:
Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors: A (3.65)
LSU Tigers: A (3.75)
Fresno State Bulldogs: D+ (1.42)
Stanford Cardinal: B+ (3.25)
Arizona State Sun Devils: D (1.25)
Arizona Wildcats: C (2.42)
Washington Huskies: B (3.17)
Oregon Ducks: D (1.17)
Utah Utes: D (1.08)
Colorado Buffaloes: B (3.00)
One more game to go.