UCLA is still trying to turn pages to put yet another bad loss behind them. As the players repeat from head coach Chip Kelly, “So what, what’s next?” But after losing to San Diego State for the first time in history, in front of a predominantly empty Rose Bowl, the Bruins now face the daunting task of facing top-five ranked Oklahoma and Heisman candidate quarterback Jalen Hurts. Ready or not, it’s the UCLA Bruins versus Oklahoma
Kelly says despite being 0-2 for the second straight year, the team has not lost confidence. “That’s the great thing about youth. They don’t have very long mindsets. They understand it’s on to the next opponent. That’s what you really have to have in this game. Every week is a season and we only look at it weekly.”
Oklahoma comes in as three touchdown favorites and for all the right reasons. The Sooners are the number five team in the current AP rankings. While their offensive numbers have to be taken with a small grain of salt because they ran up stats on South Dakota last week, they also have to be taken seriously. Oklahoma leads the nation in yards per play, (10.9), yards per game, (709; they ran up 733 yards of total offense against South Dakota), and highest percentage of plays that have gone for at least 10 yards, (40%). Hurts has completed nearly 83% of his passes for 591 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Kelly is undaunted by the task at hand. “I don’t care who it is, there is not one team we can look forward to. There is not one team we can look past. You get 12 opportunities at this thing and we relish the opportunity to play really, really good teams. When it’s Oklahoma coming in, whether they are ranked five, 15 or 25, it’s Oklahoma so the kids are really excited about playing against Oklahoma.”
That may or may not be the case. And while Kelly says he works in the micro and focuses on one day at a time, his players had to move beyond the horribly lingering past. That meant having a player’s only meeting Sunday. Quite often those represent a form of mutiny in the ranks. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson says that was not the case here.
Defensive back Quentin Lake said Saturday after the game that it was time for the upper classmen to take control of a deteriorating on-field situation. Thompson-Robinson said at practice Wednesday that the meeting was about body language, emotion, and the psyches of the players. “A lot of guys had a lot of things to say and I think they were all very informative on how we need to need to improve and how we need to grow as a team.” He said he can see a difference in the attitudes on the practice field in the three days since the meeting. “Having an 0-2 start and guys were kind of hanging their head and stuff like that, you can see a change in attitude coming out on the practice field now.”
So, what was covered in the meeting? “We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and not kind of blame other things. We have to control what we can control. Guys sometimes want to point fingers which is a natural human response, so look in the mirror and correct yourselves.” Offensive lineman Chris Murray said the meeting was needed. “Mainly we let people spread their voice and kind of just have an open floor with no interruptions.”
We have everyone saying the right things, but will that ultimately be enough on the field to stay competitive Saturday? Kelly says youth is still playing a factor. Fifty-two players saw action Saturday against San Diego State with more than half of them being freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores. But that has been the known case all through camp and some of them saw action last year. This was always going to be a young team but one with sufficient game experience in the youth. “They have to grow from each one of their experiences and that is how we grow as a team,” Kelly said.
He said some of the problems that fans are putting off on Thompson-Robinson are more intricate than that. “You’ve got to look at turnovers from a specific standpoint. The two turnovers we had Saturday were protection breakdowns. It wasn’t a ball security issue.” One of the turnovers was actually a fumble by tight end Mike Martinez, so it’s hard to put that on the offensive line. But Kelly did emphasize continuous changes on the line. Alec Anderson missed the first game. Mike Alves has yet to play because of back issues and will not play this Saturday. The line continues to be makeshift week to week.
If protection from the offensive line is an issue, then the Bruins will have their work cut out for them even more so this week. Oklahoma is running a more aggressive defensive scheme than any time in recent years. First year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought his attacking style from Washington State. Kelly says part of the challenge is the defense brings players from all angles. “Alex came in and has changed from what they were doing in the past. There is a lot of movement across the front. There’s a lot of twists and they are on the run all the time. We didn’t watch any of Oklahoma’s defensive games from last year (in preparation for this week).”
So, UCLA has challenges on the offensive line and protection execution. And now a fast, complex defense is coming into the Rose Bowl. They had problems stopping the intermediate passing game of San Diego State, and now Hurts strolls in with eye popping efficiency. Is there an upside for the Bruins anywhere this weekend? There are free tickets to be had if you endured the heat last week with the SDSU loss. Beyond that, like it has been each week, it is time for what is being said about the quality of practice to be put into action on the field. It is three weeks and waiting.