It was nothing like what happened in Knoxville over the weekend, or the trashing in Tallahassee. Still, the UCLA Bruins lost the season opener in Cincinnati in a fashion that was equal parts disheveled and defective. The Bearcats are an upper echelon team among the G5 schools. Still, it was a winnable game at most levels.
Now the Bruins have to turn the page heading into the home opener against San Diego State. The Aztecs spent week one beating Weber St. 6-0.
UCLA Bruins; Turning The Page
There is no way to claim, with any credibility, that a week two out-of-conference game is a must win. But this one comes as close as would appropriately fit into that category for UCLA. Going 0-2 headed into the week three gauntlet against the Oklahoma Sooners would be an ignominious start in year two of the Chip Kelly era, to say the least.
Kelly said at practice this week that all wins are equally significant, regardless of what happened the week before. “We don’t put any quantification on it, or we need to win because of this, or this will give us this. This will give us a win. These guys have put in a lot of hard work into it.”
That sounds like what a coach is supposed to say. But putting a sloppy loss behind you is not always easy when you have a bunch of young athletes under the gun to improve off a 3-9 prior season. Kelly believes the team is doing that. “They have practiced really hard as a group. We make the necessary adjustments and corrections when you look at a game. Then you move on to the next opponent.”
DTR Looks Ahead
So, turning the page and moving on with the process is what is on tap for the week. But is it that easy? Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a pretty dreadful game in Cincinnati. He was eight of 26 passing for 156 yards with two touchdowns. Of course, what was big were the two fumbles and two interceptions. Frankly, if you take away the fumbles, his stats were not that much different than those of Auburn’s Bo Nix. Nix though, is being hailed as a conquering hero because his team won in his first ever start. Thompson-Robinson, as an experienced sophomore, is supposed to be above big-game jitters.
Turns out, despite Kelley’s post-game claim that Thompson-Robinson was fine, his quarterback said he was not as confident as he should have been. After practice Wednesday, he listed, “playing with more confidence and playing like myself,” as two things he needed to improve upon at practice this week. “You know, when you go into a game, you have a set plan for their defense, and you have a set idea for what they are going to run. We watched film of last year’s game and with no film from this year we didn’t know what we were going to expect. Playing the unexpected, you’re not as confident as you can be. I wasn’t as confident, let’s say.”
Despite his sub par performance, and the quick-fire social media judgments, Thompson-Robinson says there has never been a doubt about the support from his coaches and teammates. “I think that is one of the better feelings you can have as a player, not just as a quarterback, but as a player is having your teammates behind you when things go good and when things go bad. A lot of people outside of this building won’t obviously have your back when things go bad.”
He said there has been a discernible difference at practice this week. “Guys aren’t all about talking. It’s more about putting in more work and amping up everything; amping up the accountability; amping up the intensity at practice and stuff like that.” He said it is at a new level after the loss.
Rhyan Is Ready
Freshman Sean Rhyan played his first college game, replacing the injured Alec Anderson. He is not overwhelmed by the moment, even though this time last year he was getting ready for a high school game against Edison High. Now he has started in a sold-out road game and anticipates playing significantly in the home opener at the Rose Bowl. The moment does not feel too big for him. “This week we have San Diego State. They are a pretty good team and we have scouted them pretty well. As long as everyone does their job and works as a team, I think it will be a good game.
He has taken Kelly’s notes on turning the page. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. You watch it. You learn from it. And then as Coach Kelly likes to say, ‘Get better, not bitter.’ So that’s what we are going to do, we ‘re going to get better.”
SDSU Is Defensive
So, the Bearcats are in the rear view and the Aztecs are in the front windshield. Former UCLA defensive coordinator Rocky Long is in his ninth season as the head coach at San Diego State. The Aztecs have made a bowl game every year he has been there. Long is widely recognized as a defensive innovator. That presents a different challenge, looking ahead, for UCLA. Kelly called him a defensive guru. “He runs a scheme not a lot of other people run. He basically invented the scheme.”
Kelly says that makes it difficult to prep for, because you don’t see that type of defense very often. “There is a lot of multiplicity to it. It gets everybody and anybody from different angles.”
It was Long’s defense that held Texas A&M, a team that averaged 35 points per game in 1997, to seven second half points as the Bruins beat the Aggies in the 1998 Cotton Bowl, 29-23.
He recruits well to his system and has sustained it for 20 years at New Mexico and SDSU for a 137-104 career record at two schools not exactly known as football powerhouses.
That brings us back to the significance of getting a win Saturday if you are UCLA. No coach is ever going to say one regular season game is more important than any other, especially in week two. But the reality is, a gettable game got away last week. There is no looking ahead, but it would be naïve to think many of these players were not watching Jalen Hurts and Oklahoma destroy Houston last weekend. That means this weekend has to be about more than just improvements. The improvements have to lead to a quantifiable and positive outcome.