Fresno State vs. UCLA: Get to Know the Bruins
The Fresno State Bulldogs face the UCLA Bruins on Saturday, so we talked with Thuc Nhi Nguyen of the Los Angeles Daily News to learn more.
Nguyen has some insights on Chip Kelly’s Bruins.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Fresno State Bulldogs. After leaving Minnesota with a close loss against the Gophers last weekend, they square off with another Power 5 opponent in the storied Rose Bowl this Saturday night.
UCLA hasn’t had a great start to their 2018 season, the first under new head coach Chip Kelly, with losses to Cincinnati and Oklahoma already on the ledger, but the athletes they have on both sides of the ball nonetheless represent a significant challenge for the Bulldogs.
To get a better sense of what to expect from the Bruins, we reached out to Thuc Nhi Nguyen of the Los Angeles Daily News, and she was gracious enough to take time and answer some of our questions about Saturday’s game.
Matthew Kenerly: One of the big things that jumped out to me in UCLA’s fall camp was how deep the new staff dug to find answers on the offensive line. How has that unit performed in the first couple games, considering the competition?
Thuc Nhi Nguyen: When you give up 11 sacks in two games and rank second-to-last in the Pac-12 with 3.4 rushing yards per carry, it’s not a spectacular start for an offensive line. Chip Kelly said communication needs to improve along the new-look offense line after the Bruins gave up six sacks against Oklahoma, the most for a single game since 2014, when UCLA gave up 10 to Utah.
There is a true freshman, Christaphany Murray, starting at center. Murray was a guard in high school and just made the switch to center this summer so as far as inexperienced true freshmen go, he’s as inexperienced as they come. And he’s playing in one of the most important positions on offense. You can tell there is a lot of cohesion missing on the offensive line right now, and it shows up most right up the middle, where there is very little push on running plays and constant pressure on pass plays.
MK: I noticed that UCLA made a switch at quarterback and turned to true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson against Oklahoma. What strengths did you see from him against the Sooners, and what do you think could give him trouble against a tough Fresno State defense?
TNN: UCLA made the switch against Oklahoma because Wilton Speight got hurt in the first half against Cincinnati and wasn’t able to finish the game. The grad transfer suffered a back injury and has been very limited in practice ever since. Thompson-Robinson did as well as anyone could have expected against Oklahoma, which was his first start and his first road game. It came in front of more than 80,000 people, too. He was poised under constant pressure and showed his mobility and arm strength by firing a few pin-point passes.
Something the entire offense had trouble with against Oklahoma was picking up the blitz packages, especially in third-and-long situations. I think that’s partially on the quarterback and partially on the offensive line. As with many young quarterbacks, if a defense can get pressure on Thompson-Robinson and make him process the game quickly, that can trip him up because he doesn’t quite have enough game experience yet.
MK: Many Fresno State fans have a keen interest in Kazmeir Allen’s performance as a San Joaquin Valey product. For those who haven’t watched the Bruins closely, what kind of role has Allen had in Chip Kelly’s offense so far?
TNN: Allen has quickly become a fan favorite after his 74-yard touchdown run against Cincinnati. They give him the ball in space, often in end-around or jet-sweep situations, to best harness his speed, but I think many fans are clamoring for more of the freshman running back. After five carries in the season opener, he had 10 against Oklahoma. He practiced returning kickoffs during training camp but hasn’t taken one in a game yet. During training camp, they also lined him up in the slot, so he definitely has the potential to grow into a versatile weapon for the Bruins during his career.
MK: The Bruins’ run defense has been much improved, at least on the stat sheet, from 2017 and the Bulldogs just lost their best offensive lineman for the season to injury. Who’s stood out in the UCLA front seven so far that Fresno State fans should watch?
TNN: The early success against the run is the biggest improvement from the entire team, and I would say that it should be the most cause for optimism among fans about a team that’s off to its first 0-2 start since 2010. The front seven, which plays a base 3-4 defense, has just four healthy scholarship inside linebackers, three true freshmen defensive linemen who rotate in and a newly injury-riddled outside linebacking group, so the Bruins could run into depth issues against Fresno State.
Jaelan Phillips, a former five-star prospect who seems tailor-made for this defense, was somewhat limited in practice this week with an undisclosed injury and he’s a star for the Bruins on defense with his versatility. He can rush the quarterback, set the edge and drop back in coverage. He is typically used as a spy in nickle situations when the Bruins need to account for a running quarterback. If he can’t play, UCLA will likely turn to Odua Isibor, a redshirt freshman, to play opposite Keisean Lucier-South, another former five-star prospect at outside linebacker. While Atonio Mafi is the most eye-catching defensive lineman, tipping the scales at 380 pounds, fellow freshman Otito Ogbonnia has gotten off to the stronger start, in my opinion, as he seems to be stronger at the point of attack at this point in his career.
MK: Finally, how do you think this game will play out, and do you have a prediction?
TNN: I think UCLA will probably win. I don’t think it’s going to be easy. Fresno State has an experienced quarterback in Marcus McMaryion, a name some Pac-12 fans may remember from his Oregon State days, and talented receivers as well as a stout defense, but the Bruins need this win badly. I think they will fight hard enough to get it. That is the only prediction I have.