Star running back Zach Charbonnet couldn’t play after testing his aching body in warmups. Defensive coordinator Bill McGovern stayed home with a lingering illness.
Also missing Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium: the UCLA defense.
Say what you want about the Bruins’ sturdy running game and ability to close out Arizona State after things got more than a bit frightening, but the story line with the biggest ramifications for the rest of the season was that dreadful defense.
Here are five takeaways from No. 12 UCLA’s 50-36 triumph over the Sun Devils:
Give the ‘D’ a D
UCLA could exhale only after defensive back Jaylin Davies intercepted Arizona State quarterback Travis Bourguet’s final pass in the end zone with 15 seconds left.
There was no need for such desert drama.
The Bruins once led 42-18 and appeared on cruise control, and maybe that was the problem. Their defense largely went through the motions while allowing the Sun Devils to score 18 consecutive points, closing to within 42-36 after Bourquet completed a two-point conversion with 6:24 remaining.
“I think as a whole group on the defensive side of the ball, we need to tackle better,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, stating the obvious.
Kelly wouldn’t speculate as to whether McGovern might return next weekend when the Bruins face Arizona at the Rose Bowl, saying only that he did not want his defensive coordinator to travel given his condition. McGovern had returned to practice earlier in the week after missing the Stanford game.
Whoever is calling UCLA’s defense, they will need to figure some things out. The Bruins can’t play like they did in the second half Saturday and expect to beat USC on Nov. 19, much less win a major bowl game against another high-powered offense.
Not so sporting
Contributing to UCLA’s defensive meltdown were a handful of needless penalties.
In a related development, Arizona State scored on every drive involving those penalties.
Making a run for it
Even without Charbonnet, the Bruins’ running game covered more ground than Forrest Gump on one of his coast-to-coast jogs.
UCLA rolled up 402 rushing yards, its most since totaling 437 against Washington State in 2010. Career highs were everywhere. Kazmeir Allen (137 yards), Dorian Thompson-Robinson (120), Keegan Jones (98) and Colson Yankoff (48) all logged the best rushing numbers of their career.
Solidifying his nickname as the “Kazmanian Devil,” Allen sprinted 75 yards for a third-quarter touchdown in which he nearly picked up a block from Thompson-Robinson. Allen and Jones piled up yardage even after briefly limping off the field in the first half. Thompson-Robinson added two more hurdles to his high-jumping legacy.
UCLA averaged 9.6 yards per carry and was able to churn out the yardage it needed on a final scoring drive even though its plays were entirely predictable. The Bruins ran on all seven plays, Yankoff finally powering into the end zone on a one-yard run.
“When you can run the ball when people know you’re going to run the ball,” Kelly said, “that’s critical.”
Thompson-Robinson accounted for 289 total yards of offense (169 passing) and four touchdowns, moving further up the school record lists.
His 11,301 yards of total offense overtook Cade McNown (11,285) for second place all-time at UCLA, trailing only Brett Hundley (11,713). Thompson-Robinson said his success running the ball was not a result of a shift in plans given Charbonnet’s absence but Arizona State’s tendency to focus its coverage on the receivers and leave plenty of running room.
Thompson-Robinson devised a plan with his receivers and tight ends that allowed them to serve as decoys on several plays that resulted in long runs for the quarterback.
“If you have a route and it’s man coverage, just run them down the field and they will stare at you in the face the whole time until you get down there,” Thompson-Robinson said of his message to his teammates.
Moving on up
Losses by Tennessee, Clemson and Alabama should vault UCLA into the top 10 of the College Football Rankings, and the Bruins could have a chance to eliminate two more teams from contention with victories over No. 9 USC on Nov. 19 and No. 8 Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
Even so, the Bruins are going to need some luck. A few more teams ahead of them are going to need to lose to give UCLA the opportunity to make college football’s final four.