Stop us if you have heard this storyline before. The UCLA offensive line has a hard time protecting the quarterback. The offense can’t produce a sustained running attack. The Bruins offense sputters in key moments of the game and UCLA loses.
Now while that my sound dramatic, let’s be fair. From the beginning, the young Bruins team was considerably overmatched against an elite level Oklahoma Sooners squad that is a viable contender for a spot in the College Football Playoffs at the end of the season. The 49-21 final from Norman, OK was not much of a surprise. The Bruins dropped to 0-2. Oklahoma is now 2-0. How it came to be may, however, leave some lasting marks for UCLA fans.
The Bruins actually drew first blood. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who was starting in place of the injured Wilton Speight, hit tight end Caleb Wilson with a 65-yard completion on third and long to keep a drive alive midway through the first quarter. Four plays later, Bolu Olorunfunmi ran it in from three yards to put the Bruins up 7-0. That was the biggest of the offensive highlights and it came halfway through the first quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tre Brown returned it 86 yards for Oklahoma, giving quarterback Kyler Murray a very short field to work with. It took just three plays for Rodney Anderson to rush it in for three yards to tie the score at seven. The Sooners were just getting started.
Thompson-Robinson was spending much of the first half looking for any viable working room in the backfield. Murray, on the other hand, had time to drop back, read his twitter feed and still connect on the passes. The UCLA defensive line never touched him in the first half. They never even got close to putting much pressure on him. He had time to complete a 58-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown through busted coverage in the UCLA secondary, for a 14-7 Sooners lead. He had time to take off on a run of his own, going 12 yards, untouched, into the end zone for a 21-7 lead, which is where is sat at the half.
For the score feeling like the game was in reach, the stats said otherwise. Oklahoma had 250 total yards of offense at the half to UCLA’s 133. Bruins punter Stefan Flintoft had more yards kicking, (209), than the UCLA did of total offense in the half.
Marcelias Sutton scored on an 11-yard run for the Sooners on Oklahoma’s second drive of the second half and the outcome was less in doubt, (28-7, Sooners), at this point as to whether the Bruins would continue to show resolve, something they have not always done under previous coaches.
Murray had touchdown passes to A.D. Miller and CeeDee Lamb (and a 42-7 fourth quarter lead), before UCLA was heard from again. Olorunfunmi capped off a six-play, 75-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run to make it 42-14 Oklahoma. The only reason for noting the drive at all because it included a completion to receiver Chase Cota and another to Theo Howard. It was only the second completion to Cota of the day, and the first throw to Howard of the entire afternoon.
Murray would rush for another touchdown and Thompson-Robinson would throw for one to Michael Ezeike to get to the 49-21 final.
There is an old adage that stats don’t lie. The fact is they lie every day because you can take numbers and make them represent whatever you need to present.
If all you do is see that Oklahoma out-passed the Bruins 306 to 254 yards; or that they outrushed UCLA 485 to 383; or that both teams were penalized six times, it might not indicate that the game was dominated by Oklahoma by the end of the first quarter.
The stats won’t tell you what the video does. UCLA’s defensive line rarely got within breathing distance of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. Defensive end Jaelan Phillips chased him down from behind a couple of times early on and linebacker Keisean Lucier-South made some nice stops up the middle. But in the pocket, Murray had all day. While defensive backs Nate Meadors, Darnay Holmes and Quentin Lake made some plays, they were also asked to stick with top-end receivers like Lamb for far too long. When you get no pass rush, you ask too much of your defensive backs in man-to-man assignments.
The rushing yards were not particularly problematic. It took five runners, Murray included, to pick up those yards. And it was Murray who was the leading rusher with 69 yards. The Bruins will face other dual-threat quarterbacks this season, but few with Murray’s combined skills.
The real plaguing issues continue to be offense and there continue to be rampant questions.
- Regardless of Speight’s health, Thompson-Robinson was going to play, just as he would have last week. Is the offense changing based on who the quarterback is? It seemed to be the case last week against Cincinnati, but less so Saturday against Oklahoma.
- The offense is asking Thompson-Robinson to drop back into the pocket, much as it would Speight, which surprising considering his skill as a sprint-out passer, and Coach Chip Kelly’s proclivity towards a faster paced offense?
- Does the coaching staff not yet have enough faith in Thompson-Robinson to open the playbook more? Or is he not yet able to run the offense to a level that allows them to diversify more? At the end of the first half, UCLA got the ball back with 1:13 left on the clock and two timeouts left at the Oklahoma 25-yard line. Kelly opted to run Olorunfunmi up the middle twice and go into the locker room down by 14 points, knowing Oklahoma was getting the ball to start the second half. There was not even an inkling of letting the young freshman quarterback test out his athletic skills that earned him such high recruiting value.
- How much of a problem is the offensive line in opening up the offense? Asking Thompson-Robinson to sit in the pocket looking for receivers seems destined for trouble. The real stat that does not lie. He was sacked six times Saturday. Two of those were because he held the ball too long. Four were because he had zero chance of getting any play off. To be fair, Oklahoma’s defense is a top-10 in the entire country. But the fact remains, the offense had the most success when the passing game was quick and the line did not have to maintain their blocks for very long. It also allowed Thompson-Robinson to utilize his quickness more.
The stats do not tell a complete story. Statistically, UCLA is about 15 spots better in the nation in rushing than they were last season. But little of it has come in the form of maintain drives of substance. The passing game, while it has it stats, lacks an identity. The 45-yard completion to Theo Howard late in the game paints an actual picture. Thompson-Robinson was throwing while on the run. The pass was a perfect over-the-shoulder throw to Howard who caught in stride before going out of bounds. It is the vision most fans had of the potential of the offense; fast, nimble, and potent. Which of the above questions need to be answered to get it there? Fresno State is the next proving ground Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.