Arizona is nearing the end of its hellish 5-game run against ranked opponents, visiting the ninth-ranked UCLA Bruins on Saturday night. The Wildcats (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) have dropped the first four in this run, getting outscored 188-118 including 45-20 last time out at Utah.
UCLA (8-1, 5-1) may be the most explosive of the group. The Bruins average 40.8 points per game and lead the Pac-12 in rushing.
To better understand this opponent, we reached out to Dimitri Dorlis of The Mighty Bruin for some insight. Here are his enthusiastic answers to our lukewarm questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: After showing flashes here and there in the past, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson seems to have put it all together in his fifth season. What can you attribute this huge leap to?
Dimitri Dorlis: “I think a lot of it is just the natural development of a guy who has been in the system for a while. With Thompson-Robinson, it’s always important to note that he did not start at quarterback for his high school until his senior year, instead playing wide receiver while Tate Martell was starting. He came into UCLA behind in his development compared to his peers and had to undergo a lot of that development for some really bad UCLA teams during his first few years. DTR has always been supremely confident in his own abilities, but he’s pairing it with a much better understanding of what he can and cannot do. Nothing highlights that more than his hurdle attempts; early in his career, he would attempt a hurdle and it would go poorly, but he’s nailed every single attempt this year because he’s much better about picking his spots.”
UCLA just ran for a season-high 392 yards, its most in 12 years, despite leading rusher Zach Charbonnet not playing. Why has the run game been so productive, regardless of who is getting the ball?
“A strong rushing attack was the hallmark of Chip Kelly’s offenses at Oregon, and that carried down to Los Angeles. The scheme is fantastic at creating openings for the rushing attack, and they’ve fully harnessed the threat of Thompson-Robinson as both a runner and passer to keep defenses honest about defending them. You can’t stack the box anymore against UCLA because they’ll just beat you over the top and to the outside, and you can’t throw too many defenders into coverage because they’ll just take advantage of your defensive interior.
“That said, the game against Arizona State feels like an aberration because UCLA has really struggled to find a secondary option behind Charbonnet this season. To be fair, there has not really been a need for one—Charbonnet has been ridiculous and impossible to stop this season—but Keegan Jones had not been a consistent answer for UCLA until this game. Same with Kazmeir Allen, who is actually a wide receiver but is moving back to his original position as depth for now. I don’t know how much of this is Arizona State having a terrible defense or UCLA’s backups figuring some things out, but it is at the very least something to build on for the non-Charbonnet guys.”
How did Duke transfer Jake Bobo emerge as the go-to receiver in this offense?
“It’s a combination of things. For one, Bobo has the surest hands of the receivers, though the group in general has been noticeably better in this regard. Bobo, however, is basically an automatic catch if the ball is in his catch radius. On top of that, he might be one of the best route runners in the conference. He’s not a burner who’s going to run past you down the field, but he’s really good at letting the route get him open and finding the soft spot in the defense. Those factors have let him take over the role Kyle Philips filled for the Bruins last year as a dependable option for Dorian Thompson-Robinson to target if needed.”
With all the inflated offensive numbers in the Pac-12 it can cause standout defenders to not get noticed, but junior linebacker Laiatu Latu is second in the league in sacks and the Bruins have the highest-graded defense (by Pro Football Focus) in the conference. What are this unit’s strengths and where are they most flawed?
“I feel the defensive numbers are a bit misleading, in part because the conference is not very good defensively. UCLA ranks 53rd on defense per SP+, which puts them firmly in sixth in the conference in that regard. The defense has some strengths, specifically their pass rush which is one of the better ones in the conference, but their biggest strength is the offense. UCLA’s essentially running a version of what Kelly did at Oregon by having an outstanding offense combined with a defense that preys on opponent mistakes. If UCLA is rolling on offense, that causes opposing offenses to press and make mistakes which the Bruins are more than happy to capitalize on. That game plan got them wins over Washington and Utah. If things aren’t going to plan, or if the opposing team has an offense that can keep pace with the Bruins, then the defense struggles (see: Oregon). If you’re attacking UCLA, you want to hit them in space with your rushing attack, making the linebackers have to correctly diagnose what is happening and make a play. You want to combine that by routinely attacking the corners, who are just not very good.”
Chip Kelly started 10-21 at UCLA, losing his first six nonconference games, but is 16-5 the past two seasons and has had the Bruins ranked in the top 10 twice this fall. Did this kind of success look possible in 2019 or 2020?
“Honestly no, but the landscape in college football was vastly different in 2019 than it is today. For one, the transfer portal did not exist, and that’s been the biggest saving grace for Chip Kelly. Kelly has proven to be one of the most adept at mining the portal for underutilized gems—every player you’ve mentioned in your questions so far besides Dorian Thompson-Robinson transferred into the program recently. It has helped cover up for some truly abysmal high school recruiting, which has been a major sticking point for a lot of UCLA fans and the biggest reason for pessimism going forward. NIL similarly was not a thing, but UCLA football has been slow to adapt to this change so it has not been as big of a factor.”
Prediction time. Does Arizona win at the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2010 or does UCLA join the long list of Pac-12 teams that score at will on the Wildcats? Give us a score pick.
“There’s always the possibility of UCLA looking ahead to their matchup with Southern Cal the following week, and Arizona has played well in the city of Los Angeles over the years. I also have to assume this is the non-ASU game the Arizona coaching staff has had circled all year; five of the coaches have recent UCLA ties, including head coach Jedd Fisch (former UCLA OC and interim HC), defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen (UCLA DL coach last year), and defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker (former UCLA DC who will never pay for a drink in Westwood thanks to 13-9 [win over USC] in 2006). I love a lot of what Arizona is doing, and think they’re a program on the rise that should score a good amount of points on Saturday … but I also think they’re still at a major talent disadvantage, and UCLA should be able to handily run it up. I’m going to go with a similar score to what UCLA just did to ASU, probably around 49-38.”