For UCLA fans, it does not matter how it happened. It does not matter that it was not always a particularly clean game. All that matters for the Bruins fans is that the streak is over. After 11 losses in 10 consecutive years, Stanford’s ownership of UCLA is over. Rick Neuheisel and Jim Harbaugh were on opposing sidelines the last time this happened in 2008. But with the Bruins 34-16 win over the Cardinal at Stanford Thursday night, the faithful can admit a win is a win. No matter what it looks like, it feels good. And in a season fraught with not getting the job done, that good feeling is going to hang on at least through the weekend.
UCLA; The Streak Is Buried
Stanford was up against it from the outset. Because of injuries, the Cardinal started third string quarterback Jack West. He had the misfortune of starting behind an offensive line that had a combined 26 starts among its five starters. Youth and inexperience in the truest sense haunted West all night. He was sacked seven times by a UCLA defense that is usually much more passive in its schemes. Those seven sacks were the most by a Bruins defense since the 2015 Alamo Bowl game against Kansas State.
West would finish 15 of 32 with no touchdowns. The newly aggressive UCLA defense also held the conference’s leading rusher, Cameron Scarlett, to 34 yards on 13 carries. He had a late touchdown when the game was long out of reach. One has to ask, why did it take playing against a third string defense and a novice offensive line for defensive coordinator to turn loose the UCLA blitzes and stunts?
UCLA’s offense performed well enough to create a different set of questions. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson performed well most of the game. Down 3-0 early in the game, Thompson-Robinson led a 69-yard play drive. He led receiver Kyle Philips perfectly towards the pylon on a 19-yard slant for the touchdown and a 7-3 led.
Later in the first quarter, Thompson-Robinson would roll left at the Stanford three-yard line and arm whip the ball to Philips, on the run. Philips made the catch and dove straight ahead over the goal line. The Bruins not only had a 14-3 lead, but it was their biggest lead over Stanford since 2007.
Stanford’s first touchdown did not come from the offense. UCLA was punting from their own 21-yard line, but Stanford blew up the wedge block. UCLA punter Wade Lees had no chance to get the kickoff. The punt was blocked and recovered in the end zone by Stanford’s Brycen Tremayne. It was 14-10 UCLA but there was no sense Stanford’s offense was going to be able to keep up.
Just past the midway mark of the second quarter, Thompson-Robinson and running back Joshua Kelley engineered another scoring drive. Thompson-Robinson kept a couple of plays alive with his feet when the pocket was not there. And Kelley scampered to the left side for a 58-yard run that got UCLA down to the Stanford one-yard line. Two plays later, Thompson-Robinson faked the hand-off to Kelley on the dive play up the middle and then strolled to his right into the end zone untouched. The halftime lead was 21-10. The Bruins had racked up 249 yards of total offense in the half, a number that mirrored some game totals of this season. The defense limited Stanford to only 86 yards of offense
Some of the inconsistencies that have plagued Thompson-Robinson showed up in the second half. The passing was not as on-target, and the decision making was not quite as crisp as earlier. J.J Molson would kick field goals of 43 and 49 yards to extend the lead to 27-10.
UCLA’s defense was the determining factor the rest of the way. Atonio Mafi forced a Scarlett fumble in the third quarter that was recovered by Stephan Blaylock. And West, who needed time to get acclimated to the pace of the game, was given none.
The Bruin offense would put the exclamation point on the game halfway through the fourth quarter. Kelley took the hand-off just on the UCLA side of midfield. The run was designed to go up the middle, but it was bottle-necked, and Kelley quickly hit the left outside edge and out sprinted the Stanford defense for a 54-yard touchdown run. It gave the Bruins an insurmountable 34-10 lead. Kelley would finish with a season-high 176 yards on 18 carries.
Stanford got its late touchdown when Scarlett flipped into the end zone from the one-yard line. Replays show the ball was down on the one-yard line, and Scarlett fumbled as he was finishing the flip, but UCLA fans could not have cared less at that point. They got their win after a decade-long stretch of which Chip Kelly said earlier this week, he was unaware.
As satisfying as any win is, this one was more than that for UCLA fans. It showed glimpses of what they are capable of but have rarely lived up to this season. And it ended “the streak,” and Kelly’s self-proclaimed ignorance on the topic will no longer be an issue. He even told the assembled media after the game that it did not matter to him that the streak was over. “I just care about being 1-0 on the weekend.”
But it also led to many questions. If it is so clear to any casual observer that Thompson-Robinson performs better when the reigns are loosened, why do they ever get re-tightened. Yes, He does have lulls of inconsistency. But Kelly claims to accept youth and inexperience as a byproduct of this team. Certainly, then he can live with some of it from his starting quarterback when the potential upside is evident. Thompson-Robinson was mostly accurate in his passing game and kept plays alive with instinctive scrambles. Six games into his season, it is clear the faster the pace of the game, the more his intuitions take over. Kelly said, “If they are going to be in man-match coverage, then you have to make them pay with your legs.” Thompson-Robinson showed more of that proclivity Thursday night.
And what of this defense that appeared Saturday night? UCLA has allowed 503 yards and just under 38 points per game this season while routinely sitting back in soft coverage. Thursday night it was 198 yards and 16 points. But here comes the chicken and the egg dilemma. Was the performance because this was one of the more undermanned Stanford offenses in a decade? Or did the pressure defense and better man coverage create that scenario? “I thought our defensive coaches did really a really good job getting guys in one on one situations in a pass rush,” Kelly said after the game.
As bad as the season has been with the Bruins at 2-5, they are remarkably 2-2 in conference play which puts them theoretically back in the race for the Pac 12 South. They now get to spend Saturday watching some of the conference games. They face a very difficult Arizona State team at home Saturday. The Sun Devils will be coming off playing a physical Utah team.
But in the Chip Kelly “micro world,” it is all about one day at a time. “I think our guys got better over the last two weeks. You know you learn to face adversity and they got a little bit stronger from it, and that’s part of what this process is all about. They understand it is part of the process, and again nothing to do with an 11-game winning streak. That’s a distraction we shouldn’t have to talk about.” Starting today, you no longer do.