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Run game helps UCLA's offense make its points against Washington

Run game helps UCLA's offense make its points against Washington
Washington tailback Salvon Ahmed grinds up yardage against UCLA in the second half Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

That wasn’t just any defense UCLA moved the ball on Saturday night.

Washington doesn’t give up many yards, big plays or points. The Huskies had yielded only one passing touchdown in their first five games and entered the Rose Bowl as the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense, a designation they lost during a 31-24 victory over the Bruins.

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A big chunk of UCLA’s success was an increased reliance on a run game that generated a season-high 150 yards, helping to sustain lengthy drives and keep the Bruins’ defense rested in the second half.

“It makes everyone’s job easier when we have a run game,” UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said after shaking off a slow start to finish with 272 yards passing and two touchdowns, both career highs. “It allows me to just be able to sit back there and just play my game and go through my reads.”

At the start of the third quarter, the Bruins (0-5 overall, 0-2 Pac-12 Conference) ran the ball seven times on a 12-play drive that ended in J.J. Molson’s 49-yard field goal. They ran it nine times the next time they got the ball, including seven consecutive carries to start a 17-play, 90-yard drive that ended with tight end Caleb Wilson’s nine-yard touchdown catch.

The latter drive lasted more than six minutes and was the longest of the season in terms of plays, distance and time.

“Those are long drives we’ll need to set the tone of the game,” Wilson said, “and keep the ball in our hands and let the defense get some rest.”

The move to a run-oriented offense allowed UCLA to maintain possession for 11 minutes and eight seconds in the third quarter. It was probably no coincidence that the Bruins finished the game with 422 yards of offense and 5.6 yards per carry, both season bests.

“You’ve just got to keep poking and prodding and figure out what works,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said when asked about his increased usage of run plays. “You can’t just be one dimensional. We have to be somewhat balanced so [that] we can run the ball and throw the ball and that’s what we need.”

UCLA’s defense benefited from the lengthy rest it received in the third quarter, holding Washington scoreless. The Bruins gave up only seven points and 127 yards in the second half.

“Shoutout to the offense,” UCLA defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa said after making his first career start. “They did their job, they extended plays.”

Explosive plays were a big part of the story. The Bruins’ offense generated 15 of the 58 plays Washington has given up this season for 10 or more yards, five of the 12 plays the Huskies have given up for 20 or more yards, and two of the four plays the Huskies have given up for 30 or more yards.

He’s the guy

The drama over who will be UCLA’s starting quarterback appears to be over.

Thompson-Robinson solidified his standing as the No. 1 option after completing 27 of 38 passes against the Huskies. He credited the improved play of the offensive line in making him more comfortable.

“It’s definitely been a big help in giving me more time,” said Thompson-Robinson, who was not sacked for the first time this season.

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Kelly remained unwavering in his support of the true freshman even after he struggled during losses to Fresno State and Colorado.

“It’s a confidence builder when your coach believes in you,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and so I definitely feel that.”

It was easy to be complimentary after the way Thompson-Robinson played against Washington, not that Kelly needed any extra incentive.

“I think every week’s a step forward for him and every day on the practice field’s a step forward for him and I think that’s what makes him fun to coach, is he’s like a sponge,” Kelly said. “He takes everything in and he can regurgitate it and he usually doesn’t make the same mistake twice, so he’s very teachable. He’s got a great football mind and [we’re] starting to expand what we can do with him.”

Thompson-Robinson made his first start last month against Oklahoma after graduate transfer Wilton Speight hurt his back in the season opener against Cincinnati. Thompson-Robinson kept the starting job as Speight recovered and held on to it even after Speight became available last week against Colorado. He doesn’t appear intent on giving it back.

Not even a gash on his left forearm late in the game against Washington could knock him out. Thompson-Robinson said he was OK after taking a seat for a postgame news conference with a white bandage wrapped around his arm.

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