UCLA vs. Oregon: Chip Kelly and the Bruins eye signature win in national spotlight

UCLA coach Chip Kelly yells instructions to one of his players from the sideline during a game
UCLA coach Chip Kelly yells instructions to one of his players from the sideline during a game against Fresno State on Sept. 19 in Pasadena.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

UCLA hosts Oregon on Saturday in a high-profile Pac-12 matchup. ESPN’s ‘College GameDay’ is coming to the UCLA campus to preview the big game.

To slide or not to slide? Dual-threat QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson confronts key question

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is swarmed by Arizona State's Darien Butler, D.J. Taylor and B.J. Green II
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) is swarmed by Arizona State’s Darien Butler (20), D.J. Taylor (9) and B.J. Green II (35) at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 2.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

To maximize his running ability and preserve his body, Dorian Thompson-Robinson is looking for different ways to perfect his slide. In the past, the UCLA quarterback leaned on tips from his high school baseball team in Las Vegas, joining Bishop Gorman’s squad for a week to get a personal lesson. Perhaps Bruins baseball coach John Savage should stay by the phone this fall.

Thompson-Robinson is UCLA’s rushing X factor, using mature decision-making and dynamic athleticism to help round out one of the most potent running games in the Pac-12 Conference.

The Bruins (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) have the conference’s second-best rushing offense, averaging 219.9 yards per game entering Saturday’s much-anticipated matchup with No. 10 Oregon (5-1, 2-1) at the Rose Bowl.

Running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown, who rank second and seventh in the Pac-12, respectively, in rushing yards per game, lead the way, but their dual-threat quarterback is showing how he can take the Bruins to a different level after rushing for 87 yards in UCLA’s 24-17 win at Washington on Saturday night.

“The fact that you have a quarterback that you have to defend is a difficult thing in college football,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said Monday. “A lot of times, some of those rushing yards are maybe on designed pass play-calls where people are in coverage and it’s actually not their rush defense, but it’s the ability to contain the quarterback. Dorian’s done a really good job of understanding where his receivers are, and if the first, second and third option are covered, he may give you a chance to get out and use his legs.”

While Thompson-Robinson, a former four-star recruit, has always been celebrated as a running threat, the senior is showing his maturity by unleashing his athleticism in smart spurts. He was scolded for boldly hurdling a defender in a blowout season-opening win against Hawaii on Aug. 28 and has replaced the highlight-reel leaps with more conservative slides. Simply running out of bounds after getting a first down won’t land Thompson-Robinson on “SportsCenter,” but it will keep him on the field for the next play. The latter is much more important for the quarterback who has yet to make it through a season without missing a start.

“We always preach to our quarterbacks, ‘touchdown, first down, get down,’ ” Kelly said. “You don’t want him to take a hit on every play. One of the abilities everyone talks about for a quarterback is availability, and you don’t want him to take some of those shots.”

Thompson-Robinson suffered a shoulder injury Sept. 25 at Stanford and was bothered by it for weeks, despite not missing any time. Kelly said the quarterback was “close to back to normal” against Washington. It showed.

Thompson-Robinson was 21-for-26 passing for 183 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for a touchdown. He has accounted for 18 touchdowns (13 passing, five rushing) this season with just three turnovers (two interceptions and one lost fumble).

For Thompson-Robinson, the recent surge is coming from a perfect mix of coaching, preparation and just plain time.

“All that stuff’s just starting to accumulate,” said Thompson-Robinson, who started only one season at quarterback in high school before coming to UCLA. “Me getting more reps and feeling more comfortable back there, I think that’s what’s leading to all the success we’re having right now.”


Wide receiver Kyle Philips, who missed Saturday’s game at Washington, was back on the field Monday. He spent special-team periods catching passes by himself on the sideline but joined the receivers for individual offensive drills. … Defensive back Mo Osling III participated in non-contact drills during practice after being limited to individual conditioning in recent weeks. … Defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight limped off the field in the middle of a defensive drill after appearing to sustain a right lower leg injury. He returned to the field shortly after working with a trainer.


How UCLA and USC used the transfer portal to transform their football rosters

UCLA linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath leaps over the Fresno State defense after recovering a fumble
UCLA linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath leaps over the Fresno State defense after recovering a fumble at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 18.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A three-star prospect out of San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High, Jordan Genmark Heath drew interest from dozens of schools in 2016. UCLA, with former coach Jim Mora, was one. The Bruin coaches who molded Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks into first- and second-round draft picks, respectively, pitched Genmark Heath the possibility of growing into the school’s latest linebacking star.

Thanks, but no thanks, he said. Genmark Heath was a “safety at heart.”

“Four years later, I’m playing linebacker here,” the Notre Dame graduate transfer said while sitting on a chair on the side of UCLA’s Spaulding Field. “So I guess it was always meant to be.”

Transfers like Genmark Heath are getting a second lease on their football careers. What used to be one-off additions are now critical building blocks for UCLA and USC as the transfer trend only grows in college football.

The Bruins (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12 Conference) have 16 transfers, including nine in their starting lineup. Seven, including Genmark Health, are defensive starters. They are preparing to host No. 10 Oregon on Saturday, with ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcasting from Los Angeles ahead of the contest.

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Beating Oregon could help Chip Kelly finally take flight at UCLA

UCLA coach Chip Kelly reacts during a game against Washington
UCLA coach Chip Kelly reacts during a game against Washington on Oct. 16 in Seattle. UCLA won 24-17.
(/Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Almost a decade after he left that giddy success behind, the narrative about what makes him brilliant remains unchanged. It’s all about past innovation, about all those points scored in a hurry, about what he once did with shiny helmets and speedy offense.

That could change Saturday at the Rose Bowl. This is Chip Kelly’s chance to blur his way to a new path against his old team.

Want to be known for more than what you did at Oregon? Beat Oregon.

Want to erase the rancid taste of those NFL failures? Beat Oregon.

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