In a spring game that pitted UCLA’s offense against its defense, the big winner was the scoreboard operator who barely had to budge.
Ten drives produced only three points Saturday at Drake Stadium.
J.J. Molson kicked a 22-yard field goal and Austin Burton completed a 53-yard pass to rouse a small crowd from an hour’s worth of ennui, but most of the big plays were produced by the defense during the Blue team’s 3-0 victory over the White.
Stops became routine in short-yardage situations, and the biggest play made in the end zone was linebacker Je’Vari Anderson’s interception of a pass thrown by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on a busted fade route.
It was a welcome change for what had been the Bruins’ weaker half last season.
“We got no ceiling. We got no roof,” cornerback Darnay Holmes said after contributing a couple of pass breakups on a cool, overcast morning.
Coach Chip Kelly left the play-calling to his assistants, including new offensive coordinator Justin Frye, freeing the head boss to roam about as a spectator. Thompson-Robinson acknowledged that coaches wanted to keep things “vanilla” in an effort to protect their schemes, but they probably didn’t intend to go almost flavorless.
Thompson-Robinson and fellow quarterbacks Burton and Chase Griffin alternated series but produced largely the same results. Thompson-Robinson led one drive that reached the two-yard line before linebacker Tyree Thompson stuffed running back Martell Irby for a three-yard loss on third down, bringing out Molson to produce the game’s only points.
It was a busy day for Thompson, who also stopped running back Cole Kinder on fourth and goal.
“Tyree Thompson’s like a different guy,” Kelly said of the junior college transfer who appears to have found his comfort zone heading into his second season with the Bruins, “and rightfully so.”
The same could be said for a variety of defenders. Linebacker Jayce Smalley logged two sacks and stopped running back Kazmeir Allen on fourth and two.
Fourth downs usually signaled trouble for the offense. One fell apart when running back Keegan Jones fumbled and Burton had to fall on the ball for a loss. Another ended with defensive back Patrick Jolly breaking up a pass in the end zone on the game’s final play.
“I’m glad I have those guys on the other side to push me,” Thompson-Robinson said of the defensive backs, “so come Saturdays [during the season], I don’t have to go against them.”
The offense converted only two of eight fourth downs and gave up five sacks. It was operating at a disadvantage given the Bruins had only nine available offensive linemen, prompting Kelly to forgo dividing his roster into more traditional teams.
Thompson-Robinson and Burton had comparable days, according to unofficial statistics kept by The Times. While Thompson-Robinson completed 12 of 16 passes for 110 yards and one interception, Burton was 10 for 17 for 122 yards. Burton’s longest completion came on the 53-yarder to speedy wide receiver Jaylen Erwin on the game’s final drive.
“Giving him a chance,” Burton said. “He’ll get under it and make the play.”
The running backs didn’t produce many highlights. Jones gained a team-high 45 yards in eight carries, and Joshua Kelley, the returning starter, had zero yards in just two carries.
If the leisurely pace and lack of action made it feel like a game of chess, it was a fitting metaphor.
Burton revealed that players had been learning chess since the start of spring practice after receiving instruction from a guru commissioned by Kelly. The chess was intended for just the quarterbacks before an inquisitive cornerback found out about it.
“Darnay being Darnay was like, ‘I want in on that,’ ” Burton said.
Holmes said his newfound hobby helped him relax and not fear failure. Burton said the game was similar to football because it made him contemplate his plan of attack as well as possible counterattacks.
When Burton recently saw a chess board set up outside a class he was taking with Thompson-Robinson, the teammates rushed through a game. While they remain locked in a tight battle to become the starting quarterback, there was a runaway winner in quickie chess.
“He’ll be mad when I tell this story,” Burton said of Thompson-Robinson, “but I killed him.”