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UCLA vs. LSU: Historic first meeting has huge ramifications

Bruins football coach Chip Kelly talks with players on the sideline.
Bruins football coach Chip Kelly talks with players on the sideline during their season opener against Hawaii.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Oh, it’s big.

Add in all the qualifiers, parse it any way you want, there’s going to be a momentous game involving UCLA on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said.

It’s UCLA versus No. 16 Louisiana State in the first meeting between the universities and what the Bruins hope is the start of restoring the sort of buzz around the program last felt during the Obama presidency.

Routing Hawaii in the season opener was a great start, but it doesn’t come with the Cajun cachet that would accompany toppling the Tigers only 1½ years after they won the national championship.

Even UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who calls every game the Super Bowl, recognized this one’s significance.

UCLA still has a lot to prove, but its blowout victory over Hawaii on Saturday shows there’s finally some hope for positive change with the program.

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“It’s a huge game,” Kelly said. “You get an opportunity to see a really, really good football team in LSU and obviously I think we’re off to a good start, so it should be a great game.”

In the span of a week, Kelly could go from notching his first nonconference victory with the Bruins to securing his most significant victory, topping a triumph over USC near the end of the 2018 season. Beating LSU probably would catapult UCLA back into the national rankings for the first time since September 2017.

It would also boost recruiting efforts as well as attendance at a stadium where the announced crowd of 32,982 for the Bruins’ 44-10 thumping of Hawaii last weekend appeared maybe half that. If the throng of LSU fans — projected at 20,000 — is as big as expected, UCLA could double its attendance figure from the opener.

The betting line has crept toward the Bruins (1-0) since LSU (0-0) opened as 4½-point favorites, dwindling to four points last week and 2½ as of Friday. UCLA’s strong showing against Hawaii undoubtedly contributed after the Bruins ran for 244 yards and held the Rainbow Warriors without a touchdown until most of the UCLA starters had left the game.

It’s much harder to gauge the Tigers. They followed their championship season with a 5-5 record in 2020, prompting a coaching staff shakeup that resulted in the hiring of new offensive and defensive coordinators under Ed Orgeron.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron is fired up about returning to L.A. to face UCLA for the first time since a loss to the Bruins cost him the USC head coaching job.

Orgeron called this “probably the most important starting game” he has had since taking over as LSU’s coach in 2016, a nod to the heat he’s likely to feel if he loses the opener in the wake of a .500 season. Earlier this week, Orgeron likened his team’s preparation for UCLA to a bowl game because players and coaches were staying in a Houston hotel together after departing Baton Rouge before Hurricane Ida made landfall.

There’s an extra layer of intrigue involving Orgeron, who will be facing UCLA for the first time since a 2013 loss to the Bruins as USC’s interim coach cost him the permanent job.

He might lose again unless his defense is a lot nastier than it was last season. The Tigers gave up 35 points per game, setting a dubious school record, after ranking last in the nation with a pass defense that gave up an average of 323 yards.

Fortunately for LSU, star cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks are back from injuries that slowed them in training camp, presenting a formidable challenge for Thompson-Robinson. Asked if there was a way to neutralize Stingley, who could be one of the top picks in the 2022 NFL draft, Kelly said, “Not that’s legal.”

UCLA hasn’t played a game this big since it faced No. 8 Utah in November 2019 following a three-game winning streak that was its longest under Kelly. The Bruins went splat in a 49-3 loss, with Thompson-Robinson acknowledging afterward that he had been caught looking ahead with his team momentarily back in the Pac-12 South race.

Running back Zach Charbonnet, who played two seasons at Michigan before transferring, left a slew of Hawaii defenders in his wake in his UCLA debut.

Distractions seem less likely Saturday for a team that’s practically all grown up, its roster going from 84 freshmen and sophomores in 2019 to one featuring 18 graduates and 16 players in graduate school.

“We’re going to keep everybody on track,” Thompson-Robinson said.

Thompson-Robinson routinely overthrew receivers last weekend, completing only half of his 20 passes. He pinned his struggles on bad timing on option routes and wasn’t the only one around the team to predict a better showing against LSU.

“We expect everything out of Dorian,” Kelly said, “and the great part about Dorian is he always has played his best in our biggest games.”

They don’t come much bigger than the one Saturday.


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