UCLA vs. San Diego State five things to watch: Starting quarterback battle continues

UCLA quarterback Dante Moore stands under center during the game against Coastal Carolina.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

UCLA’s quarterback battle took a humorous turn this week when Chip Kelly announced that a reporter would start at the position against San Diego State.

“Heavy run emphasis,” the coach cracked while eyeing the reporter. “A lot of handoffs.”

Bruins fans certainly seem ready for someone to take off and run with the thing after watching Ethan Garbers and Dante Moore split time at quarterback in the season opener. Potentially complicating things further, Kelly has indicated that Collin Schlee will also play against the Aztecs on Saturday afternoon at Snapdragon Stadium, though his use could be limited to situations that maximize his running ability.

With the Bruins’ Pac-12 opener against two-time defending conference champion Utah coming in just a few weeks, time is running out to pick a quarterback and let him get the reps needed to let it rip against the Utes.


Here are five things to watch when the Bruins (1-0) face the Aztecs (2-0):


Run, Bruins, run

UCLA running back T.J. Harden carries the ball between Coastal Carolina defenders.
UCLA running back T.J. Harden runs during the game against Coastal Carolina.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Since the start of last season, UCLA is 10-0 when using more run plays than pass plays.

It was close in the opener — the Bruins threw 29 passes while running the ball 31 times — but a solid run game has been at the core of Kelly’s offenses since his arrival.

T.J. Harden and Carson Steele each rushed for 76 yards against Coastal Carolina, albeit with Harden needing two fewer carries to get there.

“We both did our thing,” Harden said. “Coach [DeShaun Foster] holds a high standard for the whole running back room and I feel like we met that standard. … I feel more comfortable compared to last year, I know the playbook more. Everything comes to me faster and the game slowed down a little bit now that I’m getting more used to it.”

With Stanford and California joining USC, UCLA and six other schools in fleeing the Pac-12, the one-time power conference could be no more by next year.

Sept. 6, 2023


Funny seeing you here

UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau and defensive lineman Jay Toia tackle Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall.
UCLA’s Darius Muasau and Jay Toia tackle Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)


When UCLA’s defensive players return to the sideline after a series, they’re almost surprised to see one person.

Their defensive coordinator.

It’s a position that usually involves making calls from the press box, but D’Anton Lynn prefers being closer to the field.

“When we first heard that he was going to be down there, it was like, ‘Oh, he’s not going to be in the box?’” defensive lineman Dovid Magna said. “We got excited because when we make a play and come off on the sideline just like every other coach and player is coming up to you and is like, ‘Good play,’ he’s right there with us and he’s like, ‘That was awesome,’ and we’re like, ‘That was a great call,’ all that stuff, so it’s just awesome having him down there.”

There was celebrating all around in the opener. UCLA held Coastal Carolina to 13 points while logging 10 tackles for loss and four sacks on a night the Bruins also forced three turnovers.


A different challenge

San Diego State quarterback Jalen Mayden seen playing against Ohio.
San Diego State quarterback Jalen Mayden.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)


A week after largely holding up against a relentless passing attack, the Bruins are girding for the run.

San Diego State has averaged 219.5 yards rushing per game in victories over Ohio and Idaho State, ranking No. 28 nationally. UCLA inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. seemed to reference that in practice earlier this week while watching his proteges drive their bodies into a blocking sled.

“Over 200 yards a game!” Norton yelled. “They ain’t seen the Bruins yet!”

Also true: The Bruins haven’t seen the Aztecs. San Diego State’s Jalen Mayden set a school rushing record for a quarterback with 132 yards to go with two touchdowns in only eight carries against Idaho State. Running back Jaylon Armstead has averaged 69 yards rushing over the first two games.

“They’re a downhill run team, they’re good at it,” Magna said, “but we’re better and we’re going to dominate up front and that’s about it.”


Revenge game?

San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew scrambles for a long gain against UCLA.
San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew scrambles for a long gain against UCLA in 2019.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)


Kelly did something that UCLA predecessors Rick Neuheisel, Karl Dorrell, Bob Toledo, Terry Donahue, William Spaulding, James Cline and Harry Trotter could not.

He lost to San Diego State.

That 23-14 defeat at the Rose Bowl early in the 2019 season was perhaps the first troubling sign of the Kelly era given the Bruins’ practically unblemished history against that Mountain West Conference school down Interstate 5.

The Aztecs did manage a 13-13 tie against UCLA in 1924, their only other moment to trumpet in a series the Bruins lead 21-1-1.

A victory over San Diego State on Saturday would provide a small measure of revenge while preventing the Aztecs from snagging the first signature win inside a stadium that’s barely a year old.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly is in no rush to name a starting quarterback, with Dante Moore and Ethan Garbers set to see playing time against San Diego State.

Sept. 4, 2023


Stadium primer

San Diego State Aztecs safety Cedarious Barfield seen playing against Ohio.
San Diego State Aztecs safety Cedarious Barfield (3) seen playing against Ohio during a game on Saturday in San Diego.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)


The Aztecs have gone 7-2 at their 35,000-seat stadium that opened last September after costing an estimated $310 million.

A year ago, the stadium drew criticism for a lack of shade that left fans sweltering amid triple-digit temperatures. Kelly appears to have done his homework on the place in an effort to give his team the necessary insight.

“We study what’s the latitude and longitude of the stadium,” Kelly said. “Is it a north-south stadium? Is it east-west? How the sun sets — we’re kicking off at 4:30 [p.m.]. What time does the sun go down? Where will the sun be? Tracking some of those things so we’re conscious of what the stadium’s like.”

San Diego State has averaged 23,106 fans for its first two home games this season. An athletic department spokesperson said a crowd in the high 20,000s is expected Saturday. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 81 degrees.