On paper, UCLA is 4-0. But in the court of public opinion, the jury is still out on whether the Bruins have taken the next step following its best season under Chip Kelly. Only three voters considered the undefeated Bruins worthy of a Top 25 ranking in the AP Poll this week.
After Friday night’s matchup of the unbeatens against No. 15 Washington at the Rose Bowl, the picture should be more clear.
To date, UCLA (4-0, 1-0) got through a light nonconference schedule and had a dominant win over a struggling Colorado team to open Pac-12 action.
But the going is about to get a lot tougher.
The Huskies (4-0, 1-0) are the first of three consecutive ranked opponents the Bruins will face, with No. 12 Utah and No. 13 Oregon looming. Washington may have been seen as a likely win before the season, but it is now more than just a toss-up with the Huskies being favored on the road.
Washington has the top passing offense in the country, led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a transfer from Indiana. Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer, who came over from Fresno State this season, has quickly worked his new team into the national spotlight following an upset over No. 11 Michigan State two weeks ago.
“It’s going to be a great game on Friday,” UCLA linebacker Carl Jones Jr. said. “Two good teams coming together. We’re just going to see who’s more prepared.”
When UCLA has the ball
The first step for the Bruins is to keep pace with Washington’s offense, with both averaging more than 500 yards per game and ranking in the top 15 in the country. They are the top two offenses with the two most efficient quarterbacks in the conference.
UCLA, which has scored 45 points in three of its four games, will face a Washington defense that had an eight-sack performance in its 40-22 win over Stanford last week. Four players were credited with at least one sack. Alphonzo Tuputala and Bralen Trice each had two.
“They got as good an edge combination as there is that we’ll face,” Kelly said.
Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said the defensive line is the strength of the Huskies’ defense.
“They got a lot of really talented edge rushers,” Thompson-Robinson said. “So we’re going to have our (work) cut out for us on the offensive line up front.”
UCLA’s offense hummed at Colorado last week, possessing the ball for eight fewer minutes but splicing through the Buffaloes’ defense with the up-tempo, quick pace. The balanced effort included 266 passing yards and 249 rushing yards.
Thompson-Robinson has the fifth-best completion percentage in the country at 74.8%, and he’s also been diverse in his targets. Nine Bruins have caught touchdown passes and six have run for touchdowns.
“The situation dictates a lot of the decisions that the quarterback makes,” Kelly said. “I think our quarterback is making really good decisions.”
When Washington has the ball
How UCLA’s defense matches up against Penix and the Huskies’ offense is the “big matchup,” according to Kelly.
“Our ability to disrupt their passing game and keep them off track – that’s going to be the challenge,” Kelly said.
Penix, a fifth-year quarterback, has thrown for 1,388 yards, the most in the country. He has also yet to take a sack this season.
“I think he’s playing as well as any quarterback in the country right now,” Kelly said. “He’s extremely accurate. He can make all the throws. He’s got a really, really strong arm.”
Washington’s offense strikes quickly, scoring touchdowns on 14 of 20 first-half possessions. It has just one punt in the first half this season, and defenses have forced three-and-outs just three times. The key is Penix, who had 309 passing yards against Stanford.
Penix’s three top targets are all in the top 10 in the Pac-12 in yards per catch: Ja’Lynn Polk (19.7 yards), Jalen McMillan (17.5) and Rome Odunze (16.3). All three of them can step up in any given game, according to Kelly.
“Penix is really good at figuring out what the matchup is, and what the matchup is they want to exploit,” Kelly said. “Very rarely do you go into a game where there’s three really outstanding No. 1 receivers. That’s the big thing.”
UCLA’s defensive line, already without Martin Andrus for the season and with two more key players in Gary Smith III and Jay Toia questionable, is in for a test against an offensive line that hasn’t allowed anyone to get to Penix.
The secondary, too, will have to compete against big receivers who often win jump balls – Polk, McMillan and Odunze are each at least 6-foot-1.
“There’s going to be some contested plays and hopefully you got some size and some length, and you can compete with those balls that are thrown in the air,” Kelly said.
UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu, coming off Pac-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors, could have a little extra motivation Friday. Latu medically retired after one season in Washington, but transferred to UCLA this season.
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UCLA coaches also broke down film of Fresno State ahead of Friday’s matchup, with DeBoer spending the past two seasons with the Bulldogs and bringing six assistants with him to Washington. The two coaching staffs are familiar with each other, as Fresno State upset UCLA 40-37 last season at the Rose Bowl.
“It’s a really good scheme,” Kelly said. “Kalen has done a nice job everywhere he’s been with that scheme.”
UCLA was ranked No. 13 heading into their Week 3 loss to DeBoer’s Bulldogs last year. It willl hope to return the favor Friday.
No. 15 Washington at UCLA
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Rose Bowl
TV/radio: ESPN/AM 1150