Historically, the UCLA Bruins have been known as an elite basketball brand and just a solid football brand. Under legendary hoops Coach John Wooden, the team dominated college basketball in the 60’s and 70’s like Alabama dominates College Football today. Although the UCLA football team has never quite been dominant in any era, they have put together a lot of good seasons, claim one national title (1954), have six former players in the NFL Hall of Fame, and one Heisman Trophy winner (Gary Beban). UCLA is also the school that took in legendary quarterback Troy Aikman after he broke his ankle and lost his job.
During the recent Jim Mora era at UCLA (2012-2017) , the team regressed. In his first three seasons as Head Coach, Mora led the team to a 9-5 season followed by a pair of 10-3 seasons. In 2015, the Bruins slipped to 8-5 and then posted an abysmal 4-8 record in 2016 followed by a middling 6-7 record last season. These disappointing results led to Coach Mora being replaced by former Oregon Ducks and NFL Coach Chip Kelly.
Since Kelly is now the highest paid public employee in the great State of California, there are high expectations surrounding the UCLA football program. Although those expectations were tempered last week after UCLA lost to Cincinnati in the season opener, the fan base and the administration would surely like to see some signs that Kelly has brought new life into the program. While an upset win in Norman would be huge for Kelly and the program, I think it would do him wonders if the team is at least able to be somewhat competitive against the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners this Saturday.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 8
Time & TV: Noon CT on FOX
Spread: Oklahoma -30
Check out the second episode of the our podcast and make sure to subscribe!
Here are some key storylines to watch going into Saturday’s matchup in Norman:
Chip Kelly vs. Lincoln Riley
Not so long ago, Chip Kelly occupied a very similar place in college football to the one that Lincoln Riley holds today. Like Riley, Kelly made a name for himself as the offensive coordinator at Oregon from 2007-2009 before being promoted to head coach. As the HC for the Oregon Ducks, Kelly posted an impressive 46-7 record over four seasons. During this time, he piloted one of the most exciting offenses in college football that played at a frenetic pace. He was undoubtedly the premier offensive mastermind in the game from 2007-2012. If it were not for Cam Newton, he likely would have a crystal ball under his belt, as well. After leaving Eugene, Kelly went on to coach the Philadelphia Eagles and then the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL with mixed results. Now back in the college ranks at UCLA, Kelly finds himself facing another young offensive mastermind in Lincoln Riley.
Since Riley became the offensive coordinator for the Sooners in 2015, the team has been an offensive powerhouse. They play with the type of pace that Chip Kelly pioneered at Oregon and like to spread teams out like Kelly used to do. Although some Ducks fans might not like to hear this, I would argue that Riley’s attack is even more potent than anything that Kelly put together at Oregon because of the sophisticated rushing and RPO element Riley incorporates (not that Kelly doesn’t have a history with that). Riley also has the benefit of having more talent on offense than Chip had in his days at Oregon.
Normally, I would expect a shootout between two offensive coaches like Kelly and Riley, but something (UCLA’s offensive line and QB situation) tells me this will be different.
UCLA QB Situation
UCLA will likely look to true freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to run the offense after QB Wilson Speight was knocked out against Cincinnati with a back injury — although we could theoretically see Speight or Devon Modster. Thompson-Robinson was a highly-touted dual-threat quarterback prospect coming out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and has the potential to do some damage to the Sooner defense if he can find his accuracy. While Thompson-Robinson doesn’t quite have Kyler Murray speed, he is fast enough to do some damage with his feet. He also has a strong arm, but he struggled with accuracy against Cincinnati, completing only 15/25 passes for 117 yards.
In the Cincinnati game, Thompson-Robinson not only struggled to move the ball but also struggled to stay clean in the pocket because of a poor UCLA offensive line. This led to Thompson-Robinson throwing under duress and not having time to take shots down field. If his line can give him some more time against the Oklahoma defense, he may be able to find guys down the field for some big plays. I feel good about the Oklahoma secondary so far, but they haven’t really been tested up to this early point in the season. In summary, Thompson-Robinson should not be overlooked by this Oklahoma defense. We all saw what happened when Mike Stoops didn’t plan properly for Kyle Kempt last year in Norman.
Oklahoma RBs vs. UCLA Run Defense
Luckily for the Sooners, they go up against a UCLA run defense that gave up 194 yards to the lowly Cincinnati Bearcats. This coming off a 2017 season where UCLA had serious issues stopping the run. Although part of that struggle stemmed from a plethora of injuries to the Bruin’s front seven, I don’t see them turning into anything close to Alabama up front anytime soon. They do, however, have some talent, particularly at outside linebacker in their 3-4.
With the combination of the talented Mr. Anderson (as Gus Johnson likes to call him), Trey Sermon and the elite offensive line, I think the Sooners can potentially run all over UCLA on Saturday. If the offensive line continues to play at the level we have become accustomed to, then Oklahoma should continue to roll offensively. The UCLA defense also does not have the luxury of stacking the box with guys like Ceedee Lamb and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown on the outside. This pivotal matchup could tell the tale of the game this Saturday.
Oklahoma Defense vs. UCLA Playmakers
Although the Oklahoma defense looked impressive in Week 1, the question remains as to whether they can put it together for multiple weeks in a row. Some players that could have a huge impact for the Oklahoma defense are JACK linebacker Mark Jackson and SAM linebacker Ryan Jones. Jackson is now tasked with being the man at the JACK position following the season-ending injury and subsequent decision to transfer by Addison Gumbs. Jackson is in his third year in the Oklahoma defensive system and will need to get some pressure on Dorian Thompson-Robinson to disrupt the UCLA offense. Jones on the other hand may be tasked with shadowing UCLA stud tight end Caleb Wilson in 3-4 situations. Jones is likely fast enough to stick with Wilson but the question will be his size. Wilson is listed at 6’4 235 while Jones is listed at 6’2 230. That’s not a terrible discrepancy, and Jones is quite the athlete.
In the backfield, UCLA will likely utilize the playmaking abilities of RB Kazmeir Allen. Allen ripped of a 74-yard run last week that highlighted his explosiveness and track pedigree. If guys like Kenneth Murray and Curtis Bolton are not disciplined in their gaps, Allen could break off some more big runs. The Sooners need to account for Allen just like they accounted for Devin Singletary last week.
On the outside, junior wide receiver Theo Howard is the most dangerous weapon the Bruins have. Howard is listed at 6’0”, 180 pounds and has taken on a leadership role this year for the team. He caught five passes for 52 yards last week and could potentially do some damage against the talented Oklahoma corners this week. While Motley, Norwood, and Tre Brown are a promising trio, I still want to see some more from them. They all need to do a better job of locating the football in the air and capitalizing on interception opportunities (they came very close last week with the latter). They are going to need to bring their A-game once again against Howard and the rest of the UCLA receivers.
In spite of the talent upgrade (particularly on defense), I think this game will be very similar to last week’s game against FAU in many ways. The Sooners will build an early lead and then coast in the second half. I would like to see Riley the starters (other than Murray, perhaps) in for at least the first three quarters, though.
Oklahoma 66, UCLA 21