It is not often a 2-5 team plays a game for first place in their conference division. There is a reason why. Even with that overall record, UCLA went into Friday night’s home game against Utah with a 2-2 conference record. They were just half a game behind Utah and USC in the Pac 12 South.
Only one of the two teams left the Rose Bowl looking like a first-place team after the Utes beat UCLA 41-10.
Whatever momentum UCLA had from back-to-back wins was gone like a Friday night Rose Bowl crowd. Only 41,848 managed to pull themselves away from game three of the World Series to watch the blowout in person. A good seven thousand of those were Utah fans.
Wilton Speight started at quarterback for UCLA. He came in last week in the win over Arizona when Dorian Thompson-Robinson went down with an apparent shoulder injury. Thompson-Robinson did warm up before the game. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said after the game that Thompson-Robinson had not been available for the game at all.
Despite any necessary coach-speak that says UCLA can run the same offense regardless of quarterback, Speight is not as agile as Thompson-Robinson. The offense becomes much more one-dimensional. The challenge with a one-dimensional offense is that it is predictable, and the one dimension becomes too easy to defend.
Speight, who went 20-40 for 164 and two interceptions on the night, is much more of a drop back quarterback. Most of his leaving the pocket was out of necessity to avoid the Utah pass rush. When his timing was off with receivers it made the rushing game much harder for running back Joshua Kelley. After four straight 100 yard rushing games, Kelley finished Friday night’s game with 90 yards on 16 carries with one touchdown.
Utah opened the scoring when Adarius Pickett fumbled a punt on his own six-yard line. The Bruins defense held, and Utah settled for a 22-yard Matt Gay field goal and 3-0 lead.
UCLA responded by going for it on fourth and one from the Utah 25. Kelley busted through a huge hole on the right side for 25 yards and the touchdown. Not only did the Bruins have a 7-3 lead, they had a drive that spread the ball out to three different receivers and got a good run from Kelley. That was also the best drive of the night and there was still three-and-a-half quarters of football left to play.
It’s not that UCLA’s defense was having a night to remember. After one quarter, they had given up 86 yards on the ground with most of it going to Utah running back Zack Moss. The Bruins could not contain plays on contact, had numerous missed tackles that led to big gains and could not contain Moss whether it was on the edge or up the middle. Moss finished the night with a punishing 211 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries. He embodied every bit the theme that Utah was going to be too physical for the Bruins.
Utah made it clear the offense was not going to be contained. Halfway through the second quarter, they ran a double reverse with receiver Britain Covey throwing it to Cole Fotheringham for a seven-yard touchdown pass. The Utes were up 10-7 and for all intents and purposes UCLA had no answer from there on out.
Sure, there was some plays made. But Speight was throwing behind a wide-open Caleb Wilson when he had to move. Or he was short hopping an open Theo Howard when throwing on the run. When he did have time in the pocket, there were drops by Dymond Lee and Demetric Felton. That left nothing for the running game.
Then when the special teams gives up a 42-yard Covey punt Return, (which got converted into a two-yard Moss touchdown and a 17-7 Utah lead), you have the story that nothing was going right on the night. And the offense lacked the quick strike capability it has had in the previous few weeks to respond to significant deficits. As if you weren’t shooting yourself in the foot enough, J.J. Molson lined up for a 47-yard field goal at the end of the first half. UCLA was called for a false start, making it five yards further. The kick came up about three yards short. Even with that it was 17-7 and UCLA was a few missed opportunities from being right there. Then they came out for the second half.
“I guess it just kind of felt like, one play after another, and then a couple of plays added up and it didn’t feel like our night,” is the way Speight described the second half.
Moss added a one-yard touchdown to cap a 75-yard drive that opened the second half. It added to the pressure for UCLA to answer quickly. Instead Speight was intercepted by Cody Barton on the UCLA 39 on a pass that just as well could have been intended for Barton. Four plays later Utah had a two-yard Armand Shyne touchdown, and an insurmountable 31-7 third quarter lead.
UCLA added a field goal and Utah added another touchdown, by Moss of course, and another field goal to complete the scoring.
Kelly called the performance, “the worst game from a tackling standpoint.” Speight talked about a lack of cohesion on offense. “It just seemed like the cohesion wasn’t really there and it wasn’t really adding up on the same play at the same time consistently throughout the night.” Certainly, that has to be troubling coming from the quarterback who played the entire second half last week and got the first team reps in practice this week. The timing was never there for the offense. The tackling was poor for the defense. The special teams committed significant mistakes. And that is how you drop out of contention in the division.
Kelley said his head coach talks about the process at practice and uses the phrase, “So what, now what.” The running back said, “I just think we’ve got to amp it up now because we are going through the back end of our schedule and playing some tough teams now. I think it is just us putting our foot on the gas pedal and no rear-view mirrors from here on out.”
Looking out the front windshield, the Bruins see Chip Kelly’s return to Eugene as UCLA plays Oregon next weekend.