Chip Kelly is known for game plans with more variety than a bag of Halloween candy, all sorts of options available at any given moment.
He really needed only one play to beat Stanford: hand Zach Charbonnet the ball.
From its opening drive Saturday night, UCLA’s offense fell into a predictable, successful pattern by relying on its sturdy running back. Charbonnet got carries on the Bruins’ first three plays, rolling off runs of 14, 11 and 11 yards before quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw his first pass.
It was a winning formula.
Not even the officials could stop Charbonnet from dazzling the season-high crowd of 43,850 at the Rose Bowl. His legs churning, the running back dragged three defenders with him to the goal line on one nine-yard run in the second quarter that appeared to end in a touchdown. After officials reversed the call and placed the ball at the half-yard line, Charbonnet ran for a one-yard touchdown on the next play.
“He’s special,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “He’s big, he’s fast, he wears you down.”
Charbonnet’s big night that included three touchdown runs powered the No. 12 Bruins to a 38-13 victory in which they piled up 324 yards on the ground to break a long home losing streak against the Cardinal.
The Bruins had not walked off the Rose Bowl field smiling after a game against Stanford since the final months of the George W. Bush presidency. The date: Oct. 18, 2008.
Charbonnet gave UCLA (7-1 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) another welcome memory in the series by running for a career-high-tying 198 yards in 21 carries, averaging 9.4 yards per carry against a defense powerless to stop him. Charbonnet also was the Bruins’ leading receiver with five catches for 61 yards.
“Getting to hear the crowd hyped and everything, it definitely brings juice to the team and everything,” Thompson-Robinson said of his teammate’s impact. “For me personally, Zach’s someone I always try to feed off of, he makes a big play here, I make a big play there, and vice versa.”
Stanford had no answers. Late in the third quarter, Charbonnet juked one defender and broke two tackles on a 37-yard touchdown run to extend UCLA’s lead to 31-6.
“Probably the most physical [running back] we’ll see this year,” Cardinal linebacker Ricky Miezan said. “One of the harder running backs to tackle in all of college football. You really have to bring your feet, take up space, wrap up, all of that. We had opportunities to do that, sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t. You saw what happen when we didn’t, he got free and made some plays.”
Bruins running back Kazmeir Allen added one final highlight early in the fourth quarter when he zipped through the defense on a 72-yard touchdown run. It was just part of an offensive onslaught in which the Bruins outgained the Cardinal, 523-270, in total yardage.
UCLA’s defense was under new management, at least for one night.
Defensive coordinator Bill McGovern was sick, according to an athletic department spokesperson, with analyst Clancy Pendergast taking his spot in the press box. Pendergast, a former defensive coordinator at USC and in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs, was involved in a collaborative effort when it came to play calls.
“Billy was at home,” Kelly said. “We FaceTimed him in the locker room, he celebrated with us, I think he poured water on himself, so he’s good.”
Stanford’s slow-developing offense couldn’t muster much outside of an initial drive that ended in a field goal. UCLA sacked quarterback Tanner McKee four times and intercepted one of his passes.
The Cardinal (3-5, 1-5) even stopped itself on one drive, a false start on fourth and two forcing it to punt after McKee spiked the ball in frustration.
Charbonnet beat Stanford in a variety of ways. He made a big catch on the Bruins’ opening drive after coming uncovered out of the backfield, taking a short pass for 25 yards to the Stanford five-yard line. Thompson-Robinson eventually cut outside for a three-yard touchdown run to give UCLA a 7-3 advantage.
“He’s a three-down back, that’s why he’s going to have a career after UCLA, playing professional football,” Kelly said of Charbonnet. “Because he can do it all, he can pick up a pass protection, he’s a weapon coming out of the backfield, and obviously we saw what he’s like when he runs the football. So I thought Zach played outstanding today.”
The Bruins needed only one offensive play to extend their early lead after linebacker Darius Muasau intercepted a pass from McKee and returned the ball to Stanford’s 23-yard line.
Muasau said he anticipated McKee’s pass after watching footage of the Cardinal running the same play several times the previous week against Arizona State.
“They tried to run a little power, get the linebackers to bite on the run, and they just do a little pop pass over the linebacker,” Muasau said. “But I was waiting for it.”
That made it Charbonnet time once more, the running back making a hard cut through a huge hole to go untouched to the end zone.
Thompson-Robinson also showed resolve, shaking off several vicious hits to complete 18 of 29 passes for 199 yards before giving way to backup Ethan Garbers in the final minutes. Those numbers would have been significantly better had several receivers not dropped passes.
“I’m doing good,” Thompson-Robinson said when asked how was feeling after the game. “Nothing serious. I’ll be a little sore in the morning but glad to get the win for sure. It always makes it feel better.”
The other wait UCLA stomached this week was one for redemption after suffering its first defeat of the season last weekend against Oregon. The Bruins needed to beat Stanford to stay on pace for a shot at playing for the Pac-12 championship.
Charbonnet made sure his team stayed in the running, by running and running some more.