The Eye Test: UCLA Puts Beatdown on LSU
The Bruins have announced their intentions to the rest of the country with this win, and the way they won.
I apologize for this coming out late. I kept putting it off because we had a bye week and because I had some stuff at work come up that I needed to take care of first, but we’re here now and that’s what really matters.
It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to experience the Rose Bowl in that state.
Certainly, there have been games where UCLA has done something fantastic that have lodged in my brain. The miracle comeback against Texas A&M. Numerous matchups against Southern Cal. That 2000 season where UCLA beat two Top 5 teams, Alabama and Michigan, in the span of three weeks.
But this game felt different.
This felt cathartic. In the moment, it felt like something that was always destined to happen. Everyone in the stadium, and I assume everyone watching at home, started to recognize that there was no way that UCLA was going to lose this game in this moment. This UCLA team was not going to wilt in the face of adversity, but would instead rise up and overcome it.
I’ve watched this game approximately 12 times at this point. I will probably watch it a few more times in the run-up to Saturday’s game against Fresno State. I’m still unsure of what this ultimately means for the overall direction of the program, especially in light of this past weekend of games but, at this moment, UCLA’s victory felt like something important, and that’s all that matters right now.
Fancy graphs will return next week. Let’s get to the grades.
I think there are things you can quibble with in regards to Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s performance against LSU. He certainly missed on a few throws that could have really made this game into much more of a blowout. He had a few running lanes in the first half that he could have taken for a positive gain instead of sitting in the pocket and taking a sack (though based on the playcalling in the second half, this seems to have been a conscious decision on the part of the coaching staff to make sure DTR did not run). The interception was a case of Thompson-Robinson not seeing the coverage right in front of him.
But, generally, Thompson-Robinson did all the things he needed to do to get UCLA this win. He generally made the correct read and looked composed as the game went on.
The big stand-out play from him did not even gain any yards. In the second quarter, Jon Gaines sent a snap well over the head of DTR. The Thompson-Robinson of a few years ago would have made some sort of panicked play, either trying to run with the ball without any sort of control or picking it up and throwing it in the general direction of LSU defenders. But, here, he calmly picked the ball up and threw the ball out of bounds, avoiding a major loss of yards. The Bruins would be able to continue the drive and score a touchdown a few plays later.
This is exactly what UCLA needs Dorian Thompson-Robinson to be.
The offense does not need him to carry the load as it did in 2019, it simply needs him to make smart plays and drive the offense. Thompson-Robinson showed he could do so in the face of a hyper-athletic LSU defense, which is a great sign for the rest of the season.
Running Back: A+
What more can you say about these two? Zach Charbonnet is quietly putting together an early Heisman campaign, putting up 117 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries while adding one catch for 35 yards. He’s been electric with the ball in his hands and any sort of space, and the UCLA offensive line has proven more than up to the task of providing that space.
But let’s not leave out Brittain Brown, who was equally great in this game, putting up 96 yards on 17 carries. In the second half, Brown very much became the finisher for the UCLA offense, continually punishing LSU defenders with his hard running, even knocking an LSU safety out of the game in the process. Brown has become a bit lost in the shuffle when talking about the UCLA offense to start the year, but he’s been just as important to this rushing attack being as strong as it has been.
Welcome to the 2021 season guys! After a relatively quiet opening game against Hawai’i, the receivers had themselves a game in this one. Greg Dulcich, who has been making a case for being the best tight end in the conference for a year now, went on national television and had himself a game. The 75-yard touchdown was his clear highlight play and a huge momentum shift early in the game. He crossed the century mark on the game, but just as important to this game was his blocking. Dulcich is not the greatest blocking tight end, especially compared to Mike Martinez, but he put in the dirty work when called upon and that can’t be ignored.
Also putting in the dirty work was Kyle Philips. The running backs should combine to buy him a few steak dinners these past few weeks, as he laid some absolutely fantastic blocks to help Charbonnet on his reception scamper and Brown on his touchdown, and then was rewarded for his play with the excellent touchdown reception where he made probable NFL first-round pick Derek Stingley, Jr. look absolutely terrible.
Kazmeir Allen continues to look like an excellent deep threat for the Bruins, hauling in an early shot down the sidelines in this one, while Chase Cota was rewarded for a few weeks of excellent blocking on the outside with possibly the easiest touchdown of his UCLA career.
Offensive Line: B+
In the run game, this was a clear A. The offensive line absolutely bullied a talented LSU front seven, essentially doing whatever they wanted in that facet of the game. I went into the game knowing run defense was a problem for LSU last year, yet I was not prepared for this level of domination. If you’re wondering why Thompson-Robinson only has 16 pass attempts in this one, you can very easily point to the run game and how dominant the offensive line was as a big reason why.
The offensive line had more problems in pass protection, which is understandable. Again, LSU has some absolute talent at defensive end and they were able to generate a solid amount of pressure on DTR, especially in the first half. That pressure started to go away in the second half, in part, because the run game was punishing that defensive front, but also because UCLA went away from the longer-developing pass routes to quicker concepts that got the ball out faster.
Also want to give a shout-out to Jon Gaines. Yes, he had some shaky moments snapping the ball in this game, but he’s also a converted guard who is only playing center due to an injury to Sam Marrazzo and he still held his own in this game. Gaines is a prime example of the Chip Kelly system paying off because he was a lightly recruited prospect out of Wisconsin that has developed in UCLA’s system into a solid, playable depth piece. That’s how strong programs are built.
The first half was a bit shaky from the offense, appearing in many ways to be a group that was struggling under the national spotlight. But, then, Thompson-Robinson found Dulcich for that 75-yard strike, Charbonnet started ripping off runs, and suddenly, the offense got rolling. In fact, if you want one of the biggest stats of the night, UCLA did not punt in the entire second half. They scored on every single drive except for their final one, in which they went into victory formation deep in LSU territory. If that’s not a sign of an offense that was rolling, I don’t know what is.
What I will also point to is the maturity this group showed in this one. Past UCLA offenses would let bad plays or penalties derail their drives rather quickly, but that didn’t happen in this one.
Bad snap put you behind the chains on a pivotal early drive? No problem, here’s a big conversion to keep the drive moving.
Not in the correct formation leading to a timeout on the opening drive of the second half? Sure, let’s regroup and immediately score a touchdown.
Holding penalty wiping out a first and goal and suddenly jeopardizing a promising drive? Well, here comes the offending tight end with a major catch to put them on the doorstep of the end zone.
Yes, this is a veteran group, but more importantly, it’s a group that is playing with confidence in their ability and in the system for perhaps the first time in the Chip Kelly era, and that’s going to allow them to stay in games all year.
Run Defense: A
LSU had 25 carries for just 48 yards
This was something I felt was coming when looking over both teams prior to the game. UCLA makes it a point to shut down the opposing run game as a major facet of their defensive game plan and LSU’s offensive line was terrible at run blocking last year. Yes, that group is now older, but I’m of the opinion that you don’t just magically become better at something you were bad at in a single offseason.
A lot of the national media has harped on the fact that UCLA was more physical than the Tigers at the point of attack, but what is a good sign for the Bruins going forward is that this wasn’t a fluke or something that UCLA schemed to create an advantage. The Bruin defensive line really was just bigger and stronger than the Tigers across from them, and that opened up all sorts of options for the defense.
Pass Defense: B+
I think there are a few different positives to take from this game as far as the pass defense. First, if you take away an excellent pick play by the SEC referee and the fourth quarter garbage-time touchdown, the Bruins really did a good job of limiting the big play from the LSU passing attack. LSU made their money in that Joe Burrow championship year by repeatedly hitting explosive play after explosive play, and the Bruins generally refused to allow those to happen. That meant the Tigers had to be close to perfect in the rest of their offense, which is a hard thing for any non-Alabama team to do.
Second, you have to say that the strategy of mixing up looks and blitzes paid off. LSU QB Max Johnson was never comfortable in the pocket because he never knew where UCLA was sending pressure from. I’d love to see this group get home more often, with them only getting two sacks in total but, overall, this proved to be a winning strategy in order to keep LSU’s offense guessing.
That said, I have to assume a better offensive coaching staff will do a better job of finding the soft spots of the defense, which for now still appears to be the play of the secondary. Quentin Lake had an excellent game and the coaching staff seemed to get over themselves and recognized that Jay Shaw was their best cover guy as he saw a ton of play in this game matched up against Kayshon Boutte, but the Bruins too often play a soft zone with a cushion because they don’t have consistent options on the outside. Again, a better offensive staff might recognize that the way to attack this defense is to constantly take what they give you in the underneath game, but that’s a problem for another game and not this one.
Here’s what I thought going into this game: I felt this would be an offensive battle, and that UCLA was going to win if their defense could generate enough stops. In that sense, mission accomplished. The UCLA defense forced LSU to punt the ball six times, got them to kick two field goals on red-zone trips, and got an interception to turn momentum their way for good in the second half. Could it have been better? Sure. I’d love to see them be more aggressive in coverage when they send heavy blitzes, and I think I’m still not 100% sold on the linebackers yet, but this was a strong performance.
What is helping to drive the defense so far is the growth from a lot of individual players. As mentioned, Quentin Lake had an excellent game and looks to be building a case to play at the next level. Bo Calvert looks like an entirely new player now that he’s shifted from the inside to the outside at linebacker. Mitchell Agude, Otito Ogbonnia, and Datona Jackson have built their solid 2020 into an excellent start to 2021. Stephan Blaylock is quietly having his best season at safety. And, maybe most importantly, UCLA has a lot of playable depth now. One of my favorite things to watch in this game was how often the Bruins would institute a complete hockey line shift between plays. It keeps guys fresh and allowing them to play 100% on every play. With the way this defense is designed, that’s a huge advantage the Bruins now possess.
No real complaints here. Nicholas Barr-Mira has grown into being a reliable option inside of 40 yards, and he confidently nailed his 43-yard kick in this game. Luke Akers was solid with his punts. Kazmeir Allen looks pretty confident when he returns kicks, and it feels like a matter of time before he breaks one of these for a big gain. Just as importantly, LSU was not able to hurt the Bruins with their own special teams. No major returns in the kick and punt games, and no punt blocks. LSU could have used something in this facet of the game to spark them and the Bruins gave them no chance.
Offensive Gameplan: A-
UCLA’s initial drive was a bit sketchy, and again I question why Kelly consistently calls for longer-developing pass plays early instead of giving Dorian Thompson-Robinson some easy passing calls to get into a rhythm, but once the second quarter hit, the Bruins essentially couldn’t miss on offense. Everything was working for UCLA, and credit to Chip Kelly for quickly realizing what was working (running to the outside, attacking the middle of the field in the passing game) and going to it over and over instead of getting cute. In past years, it has felt like Kelly has sometimes used the offensive gameplan mostly to see what his players could do, but Kelly now appears to be all-business on this front. That’s bad news for UCLA’s future opponents.
Defensive Gameplan: A
Again, I can’t argue with this gameplan in a vacuum. UCLA resolved to shut down the LSU rushing attack, send pressure from all different angles at Max Johnson, and live with the results and, in general, that paid off. Boutte went off, as you could expect from a guy of his caliber, but the rest of the LSU offense was essentially limited in this game, which is a huge win.
The recipe for a successful UCLA season feels pretty clear at this point. UCLA has the makings of an elite offense and a hyper-aggressive defense that will try to generate stops and turnovers. That’s the recipe Chip Kelly rode at Oregon to great success, and it’s one that he finally seems to have hit on here. If UCLA can keep this momentum going through the rest of the season, things could become very special in Westwood.
First off, UCLA did absolutely commit the penalties they were called for and LSU probably got away with some things on that front. But, credit goes to the Bruins for never letting that get to them. Past UCLA teams would have dwelled on those mistakes and let them compound, but this team never seemed to.
Second, UCLA’s strength and conditioning really showed itself in this game. The Bruins were the bigger and stronger team, a notable achievement against what has been one of the standard-bearers on that front in the SEC. In addition, UCLA appeared well-conditioned for this game and continues to remain very healthy, something that could not be said for LSU in the aftermath of this one. I was reflecting back on the Jim Mora era for some reason this past week and the difference between the S&C program of that era and today is vast.
Finally, I will point out that UCLA came into this game with a plan on both sides of the ball and executed that about as well as you could have hoped for. That’s a big deal against an LSU squad that was desperate to prove last year was a fluke. And make no mistake about it: that team played desperate throughout the game. They did not lose because they were not trying. UCLA simply beat them into submission.
Offense grade: A- (3.7)
Defense grade: B+ (3.3)
Special Teams grade: A (4.0)
Coaching grade: A (4.0)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for LSU Tigers: A (3.75)
And as a reminder, here are the scores from past games:
Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors: A (3.65)
Now, did I give some of those grades a bump up just because of the importance of this game? Probably, but I don’t think it is unwarranted. If anything, the past 20 years of UCLA football have been characterized by an inability to rise to the occasion. So, for this team to do so is a major accomplishment, even if we are still unsure as to the overall quality of this LSU team.
Still, seasons are not won or lost in early September and, now, a new challenge approaches. Fresno State represents a major hurdle for this team. The last time these two programs faced each other, the Bulldogs decimated the Bruins in a game that let UCLA fans know the rebuild was not going to be easy. If Chip Kelly wants to prove things are heading in the right direction, this seems like the perfect opponent to do so against.