Panther-lair – Behind Enemy Lines: A closer look at UCLA
After a lengthy layoff, the 2022 Pitt football season will conclude with an appearance in the Sun Bowl against the UCLA Bruins. Pitt will be looking to finish the season 9-4 and will be going for a fifth straight win to close the season.
UCLA enters this game with a 9-3 record and ranked 18th in the final College Football Playoff rankings. The Bruins are under the direction of fifth year head coach Chip Kelly, who is having his best season since taking over in Westwood. UCLA has one of the nation’s most prolific offenses led by dynamic quaterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and All-PAC 12 running back Zach Charbonnet.
In order to get a better look at UCLA, we chatted with Tracy McDannald at BruinBlitz.com.
Obviously UCLA has not really been affected by any opt-outs to this point. Do you expect that the team will be at completely full strength, or could some players have limited roles, and because there have been so few opt-outs and UCLA is going for a 10-win season for the first time since 2014, do you feel like this team is pretty well motivated for this game?
McDannald: The motivation to win 10 games, which would match the school record, has been the mantra for UCLA since the regular season ended and bowl practices got underway. Everyone from fifth-year senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on down has used it as a source of motivation, and even players like place-kicker/punter Nicholas Barr-Mira, who is in the transfer portal, continued to practice and is expected to play. There’s also the fact very few players, aside from players who transferred in, have played in a bowl game.
UCLA’s last bowl game played was in 2017, a season before Thompson-Robinson and head coach Chip Kelly arrived. Still, it would be a surprise to see each starter play the full game. Slot receiver/running back Kazmeir Allen didn’t practice all month and declared for the NFL draft last Friday. He made the trip to El Paso but has not practiced all month. So, it would be a surprise to see him play much, if at all. The biggest question may be whether All-American running back Zach Charbonnet, the nation’s leader with 168 all-purpose yards per game, will play. The senior has twice missed games unannounced, fully dressed and with his helmet on early in games. Charbonnet has battled a left leg and left bicep injury throughout the season. While Charbonnet has practiced seemingly without issue all month, he’s still the UCLA player with the brightest NFL future. Even if he goes through pre-game warm-ups, like he did prior to the two games he missed this season (most recently at Arizona State on Nov. 5), Charbonnet’s status won’t be clear until that first snap of the game.
UCLA had a top 30 offense in college football last year, and a top five offense this season. What led to the offense hitting that next level this year?
McDannald: Thompson-Robinson took his game to another level, particularly in the first half of the season, en route to becoming an honorable mention selection in the Pac-12 this season. His accuracy was a big source of a quick start to the season.Then, it was the depth of the running back group. That was highlighted in that second game Charbonnet missed against the Sun Devils. UCLA ran for a season-high 402 yards and five touchdowns without him.It’s an experienced group with a full grasp of the offense. So, an offensive mastermind like Kelly has been able to flourish with the group.
UCLA’s defense has given up a lot of yards this season. What is the best way to attack them? And also, who are some of the key players on that side of the ball?
McDannald: The Bruins just aren’t very good against the pass and the proof is in the numbers. Only 11 teams allowed more passing yards per game than UCLA, which gives up 275.7 yards through the air. Only Cal was worse in the Pac-12.Particularly, it’s tackling in the open field that gave the Bruins issue from about the midway point of the season through the end of the year. The most successful opposing offenses have used quick-hitting swing passes and taken their shots against UCLA’s youth at cornerback.What’s made the Bruins successful in spite of those shortcomings is the pass rush led by college football comeback player of the year Laiatu Latu. The Washington transfer, who was once forced to medically retire more than 20 months ago, has found immediate success since arriving in Westwood in the spring. In his first season at UCLA, Latu’s 9.5 sacks earned him first-team all-conference honors and is currently tied for 13th in the country.Other bright spots on defense have been middle linebacker Darius Muasau and twin edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy — all of whom also transferred into the program in the spring.
After a slow start to his tenure, it seems Chip Kelly is starting to find some success. How does the fanbase feel about Kelly and the direction he has the program going in right now?
McDannald: Coming into the season, it was a fanbase not entirely sold on his contract extension. Now, on the doorstep of tying the school’s single-season wins record and not far removed from signing five-star 2023 quarterback Dante Moore, it feels like a 180-degree turn. Winning cures all.
How do you see this game playing out on Friday?
McDannald: It’s hard to imagine a motivated, nearly complete UCLA team losing this game against a Pitt team that just won’t be the same without some of those top stars on the defensive side of the ball.It’s a Bruins team that has several key players suiting up for the final time in their collegiate careers. I think you’ll see Thompson-Robinson play for a half, at least, and then UCLA’s deep stable of running backs will be there to finish the game off late for a comfortable victory. Freshman running back TJ Harden has looked like the Bruins’ heir apparent in flashes at the position, running for a career-high 89 yards on 12 touches in the regular-season finale.