It was the kind of opening game that made a statement.
Bring on Alabama … State.
UCLA appeared in need of another tune-up rather than a showdown after a sloppy 45-17 victory over Bowling Green on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Even the Bruins’ 38 unanswered points couldn’t fully mask the stink of a first half in which they committed one blunder after another.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
This wasn’t judgment day
As bad as it looked, you would be smart to hold off on any sweeping pronouncements about the Bruins.
Yes, it was an ugly win, but early impressions about a team are often misleading. Remember last season? Two games in, UCLA was a trendy pick to make the College Football Playoff, and how did that turn out?
UCLA coach Chip Kelly was wise to point out Saturday that teams evolve over a season and that the hope was this was the worst his team would play in 2022. The most important thing was that the Bruins easily withstood their two turnovers, a blocked punt for a touchdown and a turnover on downs after things had taken a frightening turn in the first half.
“We did dig ourselves a little bit of a hole to start,” Kelly said, “but I was really proud of the way our guys responded.”
How about that defense?
The scoreboard in no way reflected defensive coordinator Bill McGovern’s first game with the Bruins.
McGovern presided over a defense that really only gave up seven points Saturday. Stick with us here.
Bowling Green’s first touchdown came on a blocked punt. It added a field goal after UCLA’s Jake Bobo dropped a punt, giving the Falcons the ball at the Bruins’ 11-yard line.
Bowling Green managed only one sustained scoring drive, going 73 yards for the touchdown that gave it a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter thanks to some shoddy tackling on Christian Sims’ 22-yard scoring catch.
After that, the Falcons didn’t score again. They finished the game with just 162 yards of offense against a defense that did some creative things, including using linebackers Carl Jones and Laiatu Latu alongside edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy as the defensive line on some plays.
“That was really impressive to start the season,” Kelly said of his defense, “and hopefully we can build upon that.”
Special teams were dreadful
Anyone can drop a punt, like Bobo did after calling for a fair catch in the first quarter, but it took some doing for what transpired the first time he ran onto the field to return a punt.
The Bruins were forced to call a timeout after realizing that Bobo wasn’t the only player wearing No. 9 as part of their punt return unit. Choe Bryant-Strother also wore the number, leading to the stoppage of play so that Bobo could slip on No. 87.
Kelly said coaches were aware of the issue before the game, making it all the more inexplicable.
There was also the blocking breakdown that allowed Bowling Green’s PaSean Wimberly direct access to punter Nicholas Barr-Mira. Wimberly walloped Barr-Mira before he could get the punt off and the Falcons recovered the ball for a touchdown.
Barr-Mira also missed two of his three field-goal attempts in his first game after being awarded a scholarship.
Call him ‘Refrigerator’ Mafi
Maybe the Bruins need to start designing some goal-line plays for Atonio Mafi.
The 340-pound offensive lineman was certainly a force in the third quarter when he picked up a Dorian Thompson-Robinson fumble and barreled seven yards, extending the ball with his hand in triumph to signal a first down.
Mafi’s weight-loss journey — he’s dropped 71 pounds since arriving on campus before the 2018 season — has been one of the team’s most inspirational stories. He moved from defensive line to the other side of the ball, becoming a force at guard.
Given his increased mobility to go with his supreme power, Mafi might warrant an expanded role. Give that man the ball.
Pass protection lacked
Thompson-Robinson was on the run most of the afternoon, having to throw the ball away on third down instead of taking a sack to end the Bruins’ first drive.
On the first play of UCLA’s second drive, the Falcons dragged Thompson-Robinson down for a sack and a loss of two yards. He was also facing heavy pressure two plays later when he slipped a tackle, skirted the sideline and cut back across the field for a 68-yard touchdown run.
Thompson-Robinson said the Falcons dropping back deep in their zone coverage gave him plenty of running room. But the Falcons near the line of scrimmage continually gave him problems because UCLA’s offensive line wasn’t offering adequate protection. Thompson-Robinson was sacked just twice, but that was mostly a function of his nimble feet.
Kelly pointed out that his team gained more than 600 yards and said he would have to look at the tape to address any specific problems involving a line that included Raiqwon O’Neal and Garrett DiGiorgio making their debuts as the team’s full-time starting tackles.
There’s no need to go to the tape. This line has some issues it needs to address.
Bring on Alabama State.