The Eye Test: UCLA Does Good Team Things Against Hawai'i
How do you properly grade a game that was over after the 1st quarter?
Let me start by pulling back the curtain and revealing that every year I sit down at my computer and wonder how on earth I’m going to start what has become one of this site’s longest-running and more well-known columns. I will note that I did not start the column, but rather took it over when the magnificent IE Angel decided it was time to hang up his cleats and ride off into the sunset, and I will further note that I will never be able to truly replicate what he did with this column.
That said, this is now my sixth year of doing this column and, in that time, I’ve gotten to write about all sorts of highs and lows with this program, but this is one type of game that I’ve rarely gotten to write about: a blowout win where UCLA simply outclassed their opponent in every facet.
I went back and looked through the archive both here and over at our old stomping grounds of BN, and I only found two other games that realistically belonged in this same category. Funnily enough, one of those games was also against Hawai’i, just four years ago. But two games in six years is a pretty sad stretch for UCLA, which used to have a few of these games each year.
With all of that in mind, allow me to reintroduce the column.
The Eye Test is our way to break down each UCLA football game to determine how the team performed on an individual and team-wide level, and gauge how the team is progressing throughout the season. The Eye Test is divided into five categories: Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, and Preparedness. Yes, you read that right: for the first time in years, I’m keeping all five sections. I decided to stick with Preparedness because it fills the need for a catch-all section to measure how prepared the team looked for the game, and can include things like turnovers, penalties, and the like. In year four of the Chip Kelly era, I would hope this would be a Pass each time and, if we have to give a Fail, it will stand out.
And then, as one last reminder, some sections may be longer than others. It just depends on what I have to say about the team/players/coaches at that moment.
Let’s get into it!
Is it reasonable to expect Dorian Thompson-Robinson to have looked better in this game? Absolutely. Hawai’i was outmatched in pretty much every facet and there were more than a few pass attempts where Thompson-Robinson just completely missed an open receiver for what should have been a touchdown. First, it was Kyle Philips on the opening drive and then Kam Brown streaking down the sideline later in the game. That 1st half performance, in particular, is largely driving the grade.
But if you look over DTR’s career, this game makes way more sense, as the first game of the season is usually one of his worst. For whatever reason, Thompson-Robinson comes into the game with way too much energy and it ends up negatively affecting his play. In many respects, this was his best opening game performance simply because he played within himself and did not compound mistakes like he has in the past. And I would note that the passing game issues did seem to dissipate at halftime. Take a look at the stat breakdown:
1st half: 4-12, 45 yards
3rd quarter: 6-8 passing, 85 yards, 1 touchdown
UCLA clearly went into the second half looking to get DTR going in the passing game and it ended up being pretty successful overall. If you’re an optimist, you’re likely hoping Dorian Thompson-Robinson can build on that ahead of what will be the biggest game of his career.
Before we move on, a quick note on Ethan Garbers, who saw the first extended action of his college career and looked like a solid backup option. His two throws were crisp and on the money, and I would say that there would not be much of a drop-off in throwing ability should Garbers need to take over for DTR in a game. Ideally, we should hope we get to see Garbers a few more times this year in blowout scenarios, so he can build some experience heading into next year when he will be the presumptive front-runner to replace Thompson-Robinson.
Running Backs: A+
DTR did not look great in the 1st half, but it ultimately did not matter because Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet were determined to end the game in the 1st quarter. The two combined for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns on 13 carries in that quarter and effectively ended the game in the process. Hawai’i just looked like they had no answer for either UCLA running back, which is exactly what you’d hope for and expect in this kind of matchup.
Brown seemed to pick up where he left off last year, somehow looking more physical and punishing than previously. Charbonnet, meanwhile, looked like a revelation on each of his touches. Charbonnet did his best IMG Academy vs Bishop Sycamore impression, running through Rainbow Warrior defenders and showing off great burst en route to putting up 106 yards and 3 touchdowns on just six carries. There’s a reason Thompson-Robinson made sure to mention in his postgame that UCLA might have the best running back duo in the nation. They certainly came to play in this game, and you can bet UCLA will look to ride them throughout the season.
Hard to really grade this group, in part because they weren’t given a ton of opportunities between DTR’s poor showing and the running game’s dominance, but I will say no one really stood out among the starters. Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich were fairly quiet, while Chase Cota saw a few targets but did not register a catch. Kam Brown had the Hawai’i defense beat deep on his one look, but Thompson-Robinson missed him.
I will note that Kazmeir Allen made a good play on his deep touchdown catch, and very much looks like someone who can stick as an outside/deep play threat. I wouldn’t say Allen looks like a natural at the position, but he’s more than playable, and that should help add another dimension to the UCLA attack.
Offensive Line: A
This was also a hard group to grade, but for a different reason. Specifically, I can’t really say that the offensive line was ever challenged by the Rainbow Warriors. Ultimately, I went with the A because of that fact. UCLA offensive lines have struggled in the past against teams with inferior talent. So, it was a great sign to see this veteran group go out and dominate from the first snap. The running backs were able to look so good in part because of the giant holes being opened up by the line, which is always a good sign. Special shout-out to Jon Gaines for stepping up and providing solid play at center filling in for Sam Marrazzo.
Now, we’ll see if they can replicate this performance against a talented LSU defensive front.
Really, if DTR had looked better in the first half, this would have been an easy A, but that said it speaks volumes that the Bruins did not have their best performance but were able to effectively end the game after one quarter of play. UCLA really did not try very hard after the 1st quarter, but it never felt like the Bruins couldn’t turn it back on whenever they needed to if Hawai’i ever threatened. That’s the sign of an offense that feels confident in the system.
Run Defense: A
Pass Defense: B+
I’m just going to talk about these three together to make things easier. It became clear after the first drive that Hawai’i was never going to have a consistent answer for what the UCLA defense wanted to do. Which was weird, because you’d think Todd Graham’s son would know how to deal with a blitz.
The Bruins basically lived in the backfield throughout the first half. The Rainbow Warriors were held to 147 yards and had a miserable 3.1 YPP in the half. The Bruins had two sacks to go with seven tackles for loss, while also forcing quarterback Chevan Cordeiro into a lot of bad passes. This was the UCLA defense in its most ideal and aggressive form and, much like the offense, the defense effectively ended this game at halftime, which allowed for a lot of guys to get experience in the second half. You can’t ask for more than that.
I think special teams always gets the short end of the stick in these kinds of games because they have so few opportunities to impact the game. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. Special teams can affect the game at the margins, but things usually work out well if you can eliminate them from the equation entirely. But it does mean we have to be more nit-picky with the problems and I think Nick Barr-Mira’s missed PAT was enough to knock this down a bit. That said, this group did feast on a weak Hawai’i punt unit to get a great block and touchdown, which means we’re still going to sit in A territory.
Offensive Gameplan: A
One of my constant complaints about the Chip Kelly era has been that the offensive gameplan will constantly move away from what works or get too cute with play calls. Thankfully, that did not happen here. The UCLA coaching staff realized rather quickly that they could just run all over Hawai’i with some basic run concepts, and just used those repeatedly until the game ended. Then, they did a smart thing and gave Thompson-Robinson a few drives to start the second half where he was primarily throwing the ball to help him establish some sort of rhythm heading into the LSU game before pulling the starters as soon as possible. Finally, the offense went extremely vanilla with the second string, meaning there isn’t a ton of tape for the Tigers to study up on.
Is this the beginning of a new era of Chip Kelly offense where the smart thing continually happens? Hard to say, but this is a promising start.
Defensive Gameplan: A
Same basic thing here. The defensive staff quickly realized that Hawai’i was never going to have an answer for the aggression. So, they dialed it up again and again until the game was effectively over. Then, much like with the offense, the second string got plenty of playing time, and the scheme got extremely vanilla so as not to give anything else away.
I’d like to think that the coaching staff is finally starting to learn and make correct decisions, but I do have to grade this on a bit of a curve because Hawai’i is simply not at the same level as UCLA from a talent standpoint. Looking at it this way, the coaching staff just did the smart thing, stuck to their strengths, and kept things as simple as possible. With LSU coming up this week, that was exactly what they needed to do.
I did get asked on Twitter what my thoughts were on the scheme going vanilla in the second half with the backups in, and I will say that I am completely fine with it. I get the idea of trying to give your backups meaningful reps when possible, but in a blowout of a first game, you absolutely want to try and limit the amount of the playbook you put on tape. Simple game.
Maybe the biggest takeaway from this game is that the Bruins actually looked ready for a season opener. That hasn’t been the case under Chip Kelly, and this was absolutely the kind of game that UCLA really couldn’t afford to sleepwalk through. This is not to say UCLA would have lost the game if they had — I think the evidence we can put together would lead me to believe UCLA would have won even if they had given a lackluster effort — but the Bruins are definitely in “prove it” mode after three years of subpar performances. It was good for the fans to see a UCLA team ready for the first game of the season, but it had to feel great for the players to start the season off on the right foot.
Offense grade: B+ (3.3)
Defense grade: A- (3.7)
Special Teams grade: A- (3.7)
Coaching grade: A (4.0)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors: A (3.65)
Yeah, this was an A. The game was realistically over by the end of the 1st quarter and was definitely over by halftime. So, it’s hard to call this anything other than a success.
Now, comes the hard part. Hawai’i was a nice warm-up, but LSU represents a huge step up in difficulty. In fact, I don’t think it is out of the question to call the Tigers the most talented team UCLA will face all year. But it is a vulnerable team; the Tigers had a poor season last year and are breaking in two new coordinators. On top of all that, no one really knows how Hurricane Ida and LSU’s relocation to Houston for practice will affect them. UCLA fans of a certain age still have mental scars from the last time a hurricane impacted a football season. So, I’m sure they’re watching all of this with apprehension.
Still, this is a game UCLA almost has to win if Chip Kelly wants to prove that the program is ready to take the next step. Bruin fans have circled this game for a year. It’s time to see if the program is ready to take that next step.