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Playing Nice: UCLA

Its Bruins vs. Tigers in Los Angeles and Jon Christon stops by to break it down

It’s time we dust off one of my favorite segments we do on this here website: Playing Nice. To start off the 2021 edition of Playing Nice, we’re heading out west to talk with Jon Christon the sports editor of UCLA’s student newspaper the Daily Bruin. Give him a follow @JonChristonDB.

1) Is this a make or break year for Chip Kelly? He’s won 10 games in three seasons, and the Bruins were only picked fourth in the Pac-12 South. What’s the expectation for Kelly heading into year four?

Absolutely: Chip Kelly and UCLA have to have a good showing this year or the school will be looking for its third head coach in the past decade.

Theoretically, there is very little stopping Kelly from finally breaking out and having UCLA compete for the Pac-12 title. The roster is by far the most experienced one he’s had in Westwood, with seniors starting at every defensive position and a fourth-year starting quarterback under center with Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In year four himself, all of these are Kelly recruits, so they should be familiar with the system and be good fits in what Kelly wants to do.

So with all that in mind, I would say that expectations should definitely be higher than a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 south. I would say anything less than eight wins and a top-two Pac-12 South finish could potentially put Kelly’s job in a bit of jeopardy heading into next season.

But good for Kelly, the Bruins already looked the part of a top-tier Pac-12 team in Week Zero, albeit against a less-than-stellar opponent in Hawai’i. Kelly’s UCLA teams have had particular troubles in season-openers and against nonconference opponents, so it appears that the fourth-year coach has already turned a corner in 2021.

2) LSU always travels well and I read UCLA’s having troubles filling seats, going as far as to give away tickets to high school students. How concerned is UCLA that the Rose Bowl will be painted purple and gold?

Week Zero was a rough showing for UCLA fans.

Only 32,982 people showed up to the Rose Bowl, marking the second-lowest attendance for a UCLA football in its history playing at the stadium.

So I’ll admit I was a bit worried when I heard of the contingent of LSU fans making their way to Pasadena. This worry was only furthered when I saw UCLA’s plan to give away free tickets to all students, young alumni, local high school students and local youth sports teams.

But by all indications, the plan to keep the Rose Bowl blue and gold seems to have worked. According to the Los Angeles Times, the athletic department had to stop their offers because too many people took advantage of them. I’m hoping this raises the number of UCLA fans from 30,000 – when it was more than 90 degrees outside and the Bruins were facing a non-Power Five opponent – to somewhere around 50,000-60,000.

Compared to the expected 20,000 LSU fans making the trek from the Bayou, I would venture to guess that the Rose Bowl will stay blue and gold.

3) On paper LSU should (key word should) have a really good defense. Can Dorian Thompson-Robinson make enough plays with his arm and legs to score their fair share of points?

I think that’s the question that will decide the game, and if last week was any indication, I would lean more towards answering “no.” Thompson-Robinson only completed 50% of his passes for 130 yards in UCLA’s season-opening win over Hawai’i. He overthrew receivers routinely, wasn’t a factor on the ground and was bailed out by his backfield, which had a stellar showing against the Rainbow Warriors.

Remember, Thompson-Robinson’s early-season struggles this year were against a middle-of-the-pack Mountain West opponent. When he goes up against an SEC-caliber defense, it could get ugly for Thompson-Robinson. The running game won’t be as effective against LSU and the defense likely won’t be able to repeat its performance against the Tigers, meaning the pressure will all lay on Thompson-Robinson’s shoulders.

But Thompson-Robinson has shown a flair for the dramatic and an ability to turn it on in the biggest games. Against crosstown rival USC in 2020, he had arguably the best game of the season with 364 passing yards and four touchdowns. When UCLA started 0-3 in 2019, the then-sophomore responded with over 550 yards of total offense and seven touchdowns against Washington State to steady the ship.

So, to answer your question, it could go either way depending on which Dorian Thompson-Robinson shows up Saturday. If the one from the Hawai’i game makes an appearance, UCLA will almost assuredly lose. However, if Thompson-Robinson plays up to his almost limitless potential, I think an upset could be on the table.

4) The biggest question for LSU is the offensive line, do the Bruins have the front four to cause problems for the Tigers?

I think so. The Bruins boast senior starters across the defense and their line has been a strength for an otherwise poor defense the last few years. UCLA ranked second in the conference in rushing defense last year and paced the Pac-12 in sacks. This continued over last week against Hawai’i, picking up two sacks and seven tackles for loss while limiting a Hawai’i offense to only 26 rushing yards.

Look for redshirt senior Datona Jackson and senior Otito Ogbonnia – two of the most experienced Bruin linemen – to potentially wreak havoc on the LSU offensive line and disrupt the Tigers’ offensive flow. UCLA’s secondary is more likely to be exploited after a string of poor seasons, but the line is stout enough to hold its own even in the SEC.

5) How much of advantage does UCLA have with a game already under their belt?

I would say it’s actually a pretty big advantage in favor of UCLA. The Bruins have struggled in season-openers over the past three seasons, so starting off 1-0 with momentum heading into the second game is a relatively new feeling in Westwood. The team was already able to work out whatever kinks it had in its blowout win over Hawai’i while LSU was still on the practice field.

UCLA also probably hopes the game allowed Thompson-Robinson – who looked much more polished in the second half – to shake off the offseason rust and be fully locked in for this LSU matchup. I won’t say it will make the ultimate difference, but the Bruins’ gaining momentum without any major injuries in Week Zero is a sizable advantage in favor of the home team.

6) If UCLA were to pull off the upset how would they do it?

To touch on something I haven’t really discussed yet, I’ll say the Bruins will probably need to win through the ground game. UCLA was able to run wild in its first game against Hawai’i, particularly in the first half. The team ran for nearly 250 yards in the first 30 minutes alone, and the two-headed monster of redshirt senior Brittain Brown and junior Zach Charbonnet in the backfield found a home in the Rainbow Warrior endzone with four touchdowns between them. If those two are able to get loose again against LSU’s run defense, then I think it should open up the field enough for Thompson-Robinson to not be a liability in the turnover department. So, short answer, if Kelly and the Bruins are able to establish the running game early and often, it should set the tone for an upset. However, if the Tigers can stifle the rushing attack and force Kelly to lean on the passing game, I don’t trust Thompson-Robinson to keep possession of the ball enough to have any sort of chance.