UCLA got to experience something it had not seen all season. When the Bruins left the field at the end of the game, they did not have to walk by the opposing team celebrating with the visiting fans in the end zone adjacent to the locker rooms. Thanks to a 42-32 win over the Arizona State Sun Devils, the Bruins were the ones with the celebratory walk after the game at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA Spears Sun Devils, 42-32
The game was not as close as the score would indicate, and all is not blue skies afterwards. But for this moment in time, UCLA is 3-5 overall and 3-2 in conference play. That is essentially good enough for third place in the Pac 12 South.
UCLA jumped on the Sun Devils early and often Saturday night. ASU running back Eno Benjamin fumbled on the first series of the game. It was recovered by UCLA’s Elisha Guidry. It took five running plays for the Bruins to capitalize. Most of the work was done by running back Joshua Kelley, including the one-yard touchdown run to give UCLA a 7-0 lead.
The Bruins have capitalized on their early drives consistently throughout the season. What they have rarely done is hang on to that momentum. That was the case Saturday as well. On UCLA’s next drive, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson held on to the ball way too long through the ASU rush. He was sacked with the Sun Devils’ George Lea recovering the ball at the UCLA five-yard line. Quarterback Jayden Daniels would finish the job with a one-yard touchdown push right up the middle to tie the game at 7-7.
Controlling The Offense
Later in the first quarter, the Bruins caught a rare break from the Pac 12 officials. On third and 13 from their own 16-yard line, Thompson-Robinson found Chase Cota down the near sideline. Cota had run some of the route out of bounds and had barely re-established himself in the field of play when the ball got there. It is still questionable as to whether he dragged a toe in bounds. After a lengthy review, the officials gave him the 21-yard reception and the Bruins avoided punting from deep in their own territory.
On the same drive, Thompson-Robinson made the most of a fourth and one play. He scrambled out of the pocket, to his right, and dove straight towards the first down marker. Three plays later, it was Kelley again, this time from five yards out for the 14-7 UCLA lead.
It was another fourth down play, this one in the second quarter, when Thompson-Robinson made the gamble to go for it pay off again. On fourth and three at midfield, Thompson-Robinson rolled to his left and delivered a completion to Ethan Fernea for seven yards and the first down. It was the first catch of Fernea’s career. The senior has been a walk-on until he got a scholarship this year and was also awarded the #36, once worn by the late Nick Pasquale. Kelley would finish the drive with a 16-yard touchdown run through a huge hole in the left side of the line. It was his third touchdown of the first half and the Bruins had a 21-7 lead.
Controlling The Clock
More importantly, UCLA had burned 8:27 off the clock. The Bruins defense has had its challenges against average-to-good quarterbacks all season. They played much faster and more aggressively against a severely undermanned Stanford team last week. How they would do against the young, athletic Daniels, and Benjamin, one of the better running backs in the country, was a big question going into the game. A defense’s life is generally easier when the offense is using that much clock on scoring drives. In fact the Bruins had two scoring drives in the first half that consumed a little over 15 minutes combined on the clock. That is an entire quarter of keeping the defense off the field.
UCLA had one more drive in them in the half. With the ball at their own 36, Thompson-Robinson completed three passes to Martell Irby, who has missed most of the season with injuries. Add in a 15-yard ASU penalty and the Bruins were quickly at the Sun Devils 20-yard line. Thompson-Robinson drilled a pass to Philips who made a lunging catch right at the front pylon. UCLA, a three-point underdog, had an inconceivable 28-7 halftime lead.
Bruins Pull Away
UCLA opened the third quarter with a 71-yard scoring drive that was capped by Kelley’s fourth touchdown of the night, a two-yard run. That gave the Bruins in an insurmountable 35-7 lead.
The Sun Devils mounted a good response when Daniels completed passes to Kyle Williams and Frank Darby for a combined 77 yards. But on third and goal, Benjamin got called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. The Sun Devils had to settle for a field goal to make it 35-10.
The Bruins got their final touchdown in the third quarter thanks to 24 yards rushing from Kazmeir Allen. He was playing his first game of the season after an academic suspension. On first and goal from the ASU eight-yard line, Thompson-Robinson had to scramble backwards to avoid the rush. He was all the way back at the 20-yard line when he threw off his back leg while in full retreat and found a wide-open Devin Asiasi in the end zone for the 42-10 lead.
Arizona State got three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. While that would usually be monumental, when you are down by 32 points, it feels like garbage time. But there was news to be made. Early in the quarter, Thompson-Robinson scrambled out of the pocket. He was hit and fumbled, but also injured his left leg. He had to be helped off the field as he could not put real weight on the leg. The sophomore would sit on the bench with ice on it the rest of the game. Further tests will be done Sunday. He finished his night 16 of 23 for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
Also, the Bruins will lose defensive back Jay Shaw for the first half of the next game against Colorado. Down 42-17, Arizona State scored and went for the two-point conversion. UCLA’s Shaw was called for targeting on Daniels play at the goal line, although the replay showed it was shoulder to shoulder contact. UCLA was also flagged for two unsportsmanlike penalties, which would have given ASU 30 extra yards on their ensuing kickoff. But the targeting penalty stood, which wiped out the other two. ASU would get the two-point conversion and Shaw was ejected from the game.
Even as ASU closed the gap, the verdict had long been decided for most people, except UCLA head coach Chip Kelly. “I did not feel very comfortable until we took that last knee.”
The Post Mortem
Overall Kelly gave a lot of credit to his defense for slowing down two very viable offensive weapons for ASU. Daniels finished the game 20 of 29 for 269 yards and three touchdowns. But a disproportionate amount of that was in the fourth quarter with the outcome no longer in doubt. Benjamin was held to 67 yards on 13 carries. “The only points they (the defense) gave up in the first half was when we turned the ball over inside the 10-yard line. If we don’t do that, we may have had a shutout going into halftime.”
Joshua Kelley finished the game 164 yards rushing and his four touchdowns. He gave all the credit to his offensive line, particularly the left side of the line with Alec Anderson and Duke Clemens opening holes for him. “They were ready for the challenge and it is awesome to see guys like that shine when their opportunity comes. I can’t say enough about Duke and Alec. They deserve it.”
Chip Kelly, in his longest post-game press conference of the year, actually addressed the dreaded momentum word. “I think there are positives that you can build from. But I don’t think you can just say hey, we won last week, we are going to win this week. I think these guys are starting to stack good days upon good days when we are on the field in training. We can’t be up and down from a training perspective and expect not to be up and down when we play games.”
Beware Of Destiny
There is going to be all sorts of fan board giddiness. At 3-2, UCLA technically controls its own future in conference play, with games against Colorado, Utah, USC, and Cal. Win out and you win the South. But before you start booking reservations for the conference championship game, Kelly has a word or two about his team in charge of their own destiny. “No, to be honest with you. Grammatically, destiny is a predetermined set of events, and if it’s a predetermined set of events you can’t control it. Think about that one.”
We will spend our Sunday pondering it.