Every time he’s felt the pocket collapse around him in a matter of seconds, forcing him to unload the ball quickly or run in the name of self-preservation, Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been introduced to a UCLA tradition.
The thin blue line.
Weak offensive lines have been as customary as Eight Claps in Westwood going back to the end of coach Terry Donahue’s glorious run in 1995.
It’s often hard to remember that UCLA is the same school that produced Outland Trophy winners Jonathan Ogden and Kris Farris based on the school’s struggles along the offensive line for most of the last two-plus decades.
The line has been a consistent weakness going back to 2015, the last time the Bruins generated any sort of running game and didn’t lose a quarterback for multiple games because of an injury sustained while being sacked.
Thompson-Robinson somehow remained in working order after being sacked six times Saturday during UCLA’s 49-21 loss to No. 6 Oklahoma at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The sack figure would have been significantly higher had it not been for the true freshman quarterback’s ability to elude pressure on several other plays.
Protection was also an issue in the Bruins’ season-opening loss to Cincinnati, when they gave up five sacks. Quarterback Wilton Speight hasn’t played since being driven into the Rose Bowl turf on a play in which he injured his back.
The line’s issues have also carried over to the running game. UCLA’s rushing offense has averaged 136.5 yards per game, ranking No. 97 in the nation. The ballcarriers are averaging only 3.37 yards per rush, a number that’s reminiscent of what they managed under previous offensive coordinators Kennedy Polamalu and Jedd Fisch.
The one constant has been an offensive line that’s failed to open many holes.
Part of the problem is a slew of new players and old ones playing new positions. Center Christaphany Murray and guard Jake Burton have made only two college starts. Left tackle Andre James and left guard Michael Alves are returners adjusting to a move from the right side of the line last season.
“We’re a young line, but that’s no excuse for not playing well,” Alves said Saturday. “[It was] better than last week, but there’s still a couple of things that we need to improve on. We just gotta give credit to their D-line, they’re great players, but in the end, we’re just killing ourselves.”
Alves said the linemen were adapting to the dual challenge of learning defenses as well as the technique needed to stop them from getting into the backfield.
“Depending on the fronts they come out in,” Alves said, “there’s tons of different variables as to how we block something, and I think we just need to be quicker to identify how to block those fronts.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly said the line also had problems with the twists used by defenders in third-and-long situations, though he noted the bigger issue was being in third and long.
“We want to make sure we’re ahead on first and second down so we’re not in those long-yardage situations, where people have an opportunity to tee off on us,” Kelly said. “But we’ll look at the third and longs and try to make some corrections off of the tape.”
The line could get a boost later this month when center Boss Tagaloa returns from a three-game suspension for violating unspecified athletic department rules. Tagaloa could make his season debut on Sept. 28 against Colorado, but the converted defensive lineman might also need an adjustment period.
“Boss will help,” Alves said, “but I think Chris is doing pretty well right now.”
UCLA has lost 11 consecutive road games, its last victory coming at Brigham Young in September 2016. … Receiver Theo Howard, who caught two passes for 53 yards, has made at least one catch in 18 consecutive games. … True freshman defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia made his first career start and true freshman Michael Ezeike, who caught a nine-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, made his first career appearance. Redshirt freshman defensive back Shea Pitts also made his college debut while playing on special teams. “They’ll grow from this experience,” Kelly said of his freshmen. “We’ll take the positives out of this as we continue to build.”