UCLA had two boxes to check on the way to a presumed 3-0 start against nonconference cupcakes.
Clean up any problem areas.
Through the season’s first two weeks, the Bruins have gone one for two.
The special teams mishaps that plagued them in the opener against Bowling Green were a non-issue Saturday at the Rose Bowl during a 45-7 rout of Alabama State. But quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson went down with an apparent ankle injury, never to return, and running back Zach Charbonnet did not play for undisclosed reasons, leaving their status in doubt for UCLA’s final nonconference game against South Alabama next weekend.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Injured … or not?
Let the conspiracy theories begin.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly acted like he was running a covert operation, not a college football team, when asked about the status of Charbonnet and Thompson-Robinson after the game.
Reporter: “Can you give us updates on what happened with Zach and Dorian?”
Kelly: “Yeah, they were both unavailable.”
Kelly’s non-updates, particularly when it came to Charbonnet, were par for the course for the coach who has used “unavailable” as a catch-all for anyone not playing since the onset of COVID-19. A player could be dealing with injuries, legal issues, academics, COVID-19 or a head cold, and Kelly would simply say they were “unavailable.”
Charbonnet was in uniform for the game and seemed to be moving without limitation on the sideline, leading to speculation he might have been held out against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent because of load management.
Thanks to Kelly’s secretiveness, fans may never know.
Kelly remained furtive when asked about Charbonnet’s availability for next week.
“I’m not a prognosticator, and if I was, I’d be at Del Mar tomorrow and make a lot of cash,” Kelly said, “so we’ll just take it how it comes.”
Charbonnet’s mysterious absence meant the Bruins were going to learn a lot about the quality of their backup running backs.
What they discovered left them feeling much better about their depth should Charbonnet miss any additional games. True freshman T.J. Harden led the way with 56 yards and a touchdown in seven carries while redshirt junior Christian Grubb tallied a nearly identical 55 yards and a touchdown in seven carries.
Redshirt junior Colson Yankoff made the most of his second position switch, gaining 35 yards in six carries, and redshirt freshman Deshun Murrell picked up 34 yards in his first six carries as a Bruin.
Redshirt junior Keegan Jones, who assumed Charbonnet’s starting role, generated 33 yards and a touchdown in 10 carries while also making four catches for 31 yards.
Special once more
One week after a horrendous showing, UCLA’s special teams were perfectly fine.
Nicholas Barr-Mira made his only field goal attempt, from 19 yards, after having missed two of three attempts the previous week.
Barr-Mira and Chase Barry averaged a middling 37.3 yards on their three punts, but they did not have any punts blocked and Alabama State generated zero punt return yardage.
Logan Loya, making his season debut, showed reliable hands in replacing Jake Bobo as the punt returner, gaining two yards on his one return.
Special teams are often best when they go unnoticed, which was the case Saturday.
Secondary becomes focal point
Alabama State moved the ball with regularity, particularly in the first half.
Most of the Hornets’ early success came through the air, with quarterback Myles Crawley finding open receivers. By midway through the second quarter, Alabama State’s 177 yards of offense exceeded the 162 yards Bowling Green had generated for the entire game the previous week.
But the Bruins’ pass defense stiffened in the second half, intercepting two passes and holding the Hornets to 46 passing yards after having given up 177 in the first half.
“Fortunately, we held them to seven points,” Kelly said. “We took some body shots there, but we made sure that when we needed it, we got it. There’s some things, obviously, like anything you need to clean up.”
UCLA edge rusher Gabriel Murphy picked up the ball after teammate Laiatu Latu had forced a fumble by pummeling the Alabama State quarterback. As Murphy was about to be flung to the ground, he heard a familiar voice.
“I was like, ‘Gabriel, Gabriel!’ ” said Grayson Murphy, his twin brother, “and he just kind of tossed it to me.”
Grayson took the desperation pitch and sprinted for a touchdown. Except there was a problem. Gabriel’s pitch had been an illegal forward pass, leading to a penalty.
All was forgiven on the next play when Thompson-Robinson connected with tight end Hudson Habermehl for a 25-yard touchdown reception. A few hours later, the brothers could laugh about the mishap.
“I wish he would’ve caught it and tossed it backward,” Grayson Murphy said, “so we could keep the touchdown.”