If any UCLA players needed inspiration to treat Colorado as a more than worthy opponent Saturday despite the Buffaloes’ 0-3 start, all they had to do was talk to their fifth-year quarterback.
“Shoot, we’ve been there before,” Dorian Thompson-Robinson said.
The Bruins started 0-5 in 2018, Thompson-Robinson’s freshman season, and 0-3 during his sophomore year in 2019. In Year Five, the tables are flipped – with Thompson-Robinson and UCLA (3-0) heading to Colorado (0-3) to open Pac-12 play.
Colorado is off to its worst start since 2012 and has lost its nonconference games to TCU, Air Force and Minnesota by a combined 98 points. A 49-7 loss at Minnesota last week made Athletic Director Rick George issue a statement expressing disappointment in watching “our football team struggle,” adding that the team has “not come close to meeting our expectations this season.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – that, UCLA is expecting desperation.
“We know the type of feeling that they have in their locker room right now,” Thompson-Robinson said. “They’re going to be a real hungry team.”
Wide receiver Jake Bobo, fresh off a breakout game in UCLA’s 32-31 win over South Alabama last week, called Colorado a talented team that hasn’t been able to put it all together.
“They’re going to come out swinging with everything they got behind it,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to be ready to go, and be ready to counter some of that energy and desperation they’re going to throw at us.”
When UCLA has the ball
Coach Chip Kelly, who will coach his 100th collegiate game Saturday, sticks to scheme and personnel when breaking down film ahead of a matchup. How Colorado might be feeling is not a factor. The good thing about film, according to Kelly, is that there’s no emotion, announcers or crowd noise to impact the viewer.
“I think you can spend too much time spinning our wheels trying to figure out what other people are thinking,” Kelly said. “I think it’s counterproductive for you.”
But with Colorado’s defense giving up 452 yards per game – most in the Pac-12 by a long shot and 14th most in all of college football – UCLA’s offense should be expected to feast in Boulder.
That specifically applies to running back Zach Charbonnet, if he plays. Charbonnet was limited in practice this week, but he – or backup Keegan Jones – may have to pace themselves against a Colorado rushing defense that is allowing an FBS-worst 348 yards on the ground per game.
UCLA failed to record a rushing touchdown against South Alabama last week to snap a 23-game streak, though Charbonnet did fumble a handoff from Thompson-Robinson at the goal line. It was one of two bad exchanges involving the quarterback, who also threw a pitch to Jones that the running back couldn’t corral.
Though the Buffaloes’ pass defense hasn’t been tested much since opponents have been gashing Colorado on the ground, Bobo was impressed by Colorado’s secondary.
“Defensively, schematically, they’ll throw some wrinkles at you, so we’ve got to be ready to go for sure,” Bobo said.
UCLA’s offense will look to continue a trend of finishing strong. It has outscored opponents 147-30 in the second halves of its past five games.
Bobo and Kazmeir Allen have emerged as Thompson-Robinson’s top two targets through three games, as the UCLA offense adjusts to the departure of Greg Dulcich and Kyle Philips. Bobo, a Duke transfer, had his best game with the Bruins against South Alabama, when he recorded five catches for 89 yards.
Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, another transfer from Central Florida, also had his best outing Saturday, making a couple of key catches on UCLA’s game-winning drive leading up to Nicholas Barr-Mira’s 24-yard field goal as time expired.
When Colorado has the ball
The adage is: “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.” Colorado has three, encapsulating the Buffaloes’ struggles offensively. Colorado has put up just 30 points total this season, the worst of any team that has played three games.
Neither Brendon Lewis nor JT Shrout established themselves as the starter through three games, allowing true freshman Owen McCown to enter the competition after playing the final series last week.
UCLA is preparing for all three and expecting multiple quarterbacks to play. That presents challenges in determining what type of offense Colorado will run, according to Kelly.
“It’s a little bit difficult just because they haven’t had as much success on the offensive side of the ball, so they’re spinning the quarterbacks a little bit,” Kelly said.
Lewis is more of a runner, while Shrout tends to stay in the pocket, according to Kelly.
UCLA’s defensive line might be a bit thin, with Martin Andrus Jr. out the rest of the season after suffering an injury last week. Gary Smith II also went down, though his status for Colorado was uncertain. Jacob Sykes, a transfer from Harvard, was listed in Andrus’ place on the depth chart but Kelly said the defense would likely rotate five defensive linemen instead of six.
Colorado’s struggles could be UCLA’s gift after the Bruins’ defense allowed nearly 400 yards of offense to South Alabama last week. UCLA also allowed South Alabama to go 9 of 13 on third-down conversions.
Linebacker Darius Muasau had UCLA’s lone quarterback hurry and led the team with 10 tackles, but he believed he could’ve had more.
“There’s a bunch of tackles, missed tackles, missed opportunities on the field that I know that we can make,” Muasau said.
UCLA at Colorado
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Folsom Field, Boulder, Colorado
TV/radio: Pac-12 Networks/AM 570
Line: UCLA by 21½