The Bruins pulled off a second-straight upset over a ranked conference foe on Saturday, proving last week’s win over Washington was no fluke.
No. 18 UCLA football (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) bested No. 11 Utah (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) 42-32 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. The Bruins once again strung together a near-perfect offensive performance, and their defense proved to hold on strong against a Utes team that had given them immense trouble over the years.
These are three of the biggest takeaways, narratives and questions to come out of Saturday’s game.
Transfers continue to show out big time
Many fans and many reporters have taken issue with coach Chip Kelly’s reliance on the transfer portal over the past few recruiting cycles – this editorial team included.
While it remains to be seen where the team-building strategy will take the Bruins in the future, it is an unquestionable success when looking exclusively at the 2022 season.
Running back Zach Charbonnet, who came over from Michigan in 2021, rushed for 198 yards and a touchdown. Former Duke receiver Jake Bobo reeled in two touchdowns, and he could have had a third if he hadn’t dropped a pass in the back of the end zone.
That drop didn’t cost UCLA, though, considering former Texas A&M receiver Kam Brown caught a touchdown the very next play.
Former UCF receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala had catches of 22 and 23 yards, both of which came on touchdown drives for the Bruins.
On the other side of the ball, linebacker Darius Muasau had eight tackles, and an interception and a forced fumble in his sixth game since leaving Hawaii. Former Washington defensive end Laiatu Latu added another 0.5 sacks to his resume,
Twin edge rushers Gabriel Murphy and Grayson Murphy were routinely in the backfield as well, breaking up passes, wrapping up Utes for losses and demonstrating some real passion, continuing the accomplished careers they started at North Texas.
Even one of the lower-profile transfer additions from this past offseason, Oregon cornerback Jaylin Davies, scooped up the fumble Muasau forced on a key fourth down conversion attempt in the fourth quarter and returned it all the way to the Utah 1-yard line.
All over the field, new and old transfers were making big plays to lift UCLA to victory. Part of it can be attributed to the new world order in college football, but Kelly and his staff deserve some real credit for identifying the fit and talent of these top contributors on an undefeated team.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s Heisman run not a pipe dream anymore
Last week, one of the main takeaways from the win over Washington was that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson may be a dark horse candidate to contend for the Heisman Trophy.
The fifth-year starter has now gone one step further, emerging from outsider status and asserting himself among the top competitors for the award.
Thompson-Robinson was 18-of-23 with 299 yards and four touchdowns through the air while adding 17 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He played so well that he really only had two real incompletions, considering one was an intentional throwaway and two came on rough drops by his wideouts.
Maybe the craziest part of his 236.2 passer rating on the day is that it would have been 256.0 if Kelly didn’t try to go for it on fourth down up by 17 in field goal range with less than a minute left. That play call led to a pick six, breaking a career-long streak of starts and attempts without an interception for Thompson-Robinson, but since it was a meaningless play in garbage time, it’s tough to hold it against him too much.
For the season, Thompson-Robinson is up to 1,510 passing yards, 15 passing touchdowns and just two picks on 74.8% completion and 180.6 passer rating. On the ground, he’s up to 231 yards and four touchdowns.
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Thompson-Robinson leads the Pac-12 in passing yards per attempt, adjusted passing yards per attempt, completion percentage and passer rating. When expanding to the entire FBS, Thompson-Robinson ranks No. 2 in completion percentage, No. 6 in passer rating, No. 6 in total touchdowns.
The quarterbacks who are up towards the top of those leaderboards right alongside him are Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, TCU’s Max Duggan and Michigan’s JJ McCarthy. Those three are also leading the way for ranked, undefeated Power Five teams as well, and Thompson-Robinson is safely on that same tier with them when it comes to the postseason awards race.
Thompson-Robinson became UCLA’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns on Saturday too, adding to the historical importance of his super senior campaign. He has been a special player for a few years now, and now he’s putting together a special season that should really capture the attention of the entire country.
For the first time in a generation, these Bruins are legit
The win over Washington last week was special, but UCLA had already won a few special games over the past few years.
The 2017 season opener against Texas A&M will not be soon forgotten, nor will the 2018 win over USC behind Joshua Kelley’s instantly iconic performance. The road comeback to beat Washington State early in 2019 was record-breaking in a number of ways, and the 2021 win over LSU made it seem like the Bruins had finally arrived.
Instead, UCLA strung together bad to slightly above average seasons around those one-off performances. Even though the Bruins started 5-0 this time, capping that off with a ranked win in primetime on national TV, it would be understandable to assume – based off of recent precedent – a loss was written in the stars.
UCLA was not about to succumb to its losing ways of the early Kelly era, though, nor was it going to fail to take down a winning opponent on a big stage.
It should not go overlooked just how special the first half of this season has been, considering the Bruins haven’t started 6-0 since 2005. In terms of offensive efficiency, explosiveness and top-end talent, this is probably UCLA’s best unit on that side of the ball since the 1990s.
This team has some serious juice, and for good reason. Even the Jim Mora-Brett Hundley Bruins never had a stretch this dominant – and yes, dominant is the best way to describe how this team buzz sawed through its first four games and completely handled two of the Pac-12’s supposed top-three teams.
At this point, an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game should be widely expected of UCLA. These aren’t the gutty little Bruins anymore – these Bruins are real contenders, and they may very well be contenders on the national level as well.
The big matchups with Washington and Utah are out of the way, leaving Oregon and USC as the top remaining opponents on UCLA’s second half slate. An undefeated season may sound outlandish, but the Bruins are technically halfway there, and the strength of the schedule will be pretty steady from this point on.
An undefeated Power Five conference champion is a shoe-in to make the College Football Playoff, so now that is the goal for the Bruins. Is it an extremely high bar? Of course, but it is a simple path and not an unattainable mark to reach.
ESPN’s FPI gives UCLA the 17th-best chance of making the CFP, but the system still has Utah above them, along with two-loss Texas and Notre Dame teams. In reality, the Bruins are probably one of 12 teams with a tangible chance to make it to the Final Four. The SI Sportsbook is giving UCLA +4000 odds to win the national championship, tied for eighth-best alongside Oregon and Oklahoma State.
If they ultimately can’t make it to that stage, an appearance in the Rose Bowl would arguably be equally important for the program.
It feels odd to set expectations so high, given how UCLA has performed over the past seven years, and maybe they’ll fail to meet them yet again. For the time being, though, it’s best to revel in the moment and enjoy being firmly in the national picture.
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