UCLA football season review: Bruins stumble after strong start

What began as an exceptional 2022 football season for UCLA ended with a mixed bag of results.

The Bruins were 8-1 before losing three of their last four games, finishing the campaign with a heartbreaking 37-35 loss in the Sun Bowl on Friday. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s tenure wrapped up on a sour note, as he departed the game in the fourth quarter following an apparent injury.

The bowl loss did not encapsulate what was otherwise a stellar season for Thompson-Robinson, who led UCLA to a 9-4 record and its most wins since 2014, while racking up a number of program records at the quarterback position.

It was also marked the first time the program has had consecutive winning seasons under fifth-year coach Chip Kelly, who signed a four-year contract extension before the season. Kelly had the benefit of an experienced roster, with a fifth-year quarterback, a star senior running back in Zach Charbonnet and veterans up and down the roster.

The season, though, was ultimately defined by what Kelly’s teams have typically been characterized as – an elite offense being held back by an average defense.

UCLA squeaked by nonconference play undefeated after narrowly beating South Alabama on a last-second field goal, then reeled off back-to-back wins over teams ranked in the Top 15 to begin the season 6-0.

Oregon handed UCLA its first loss on Oct. 22. The Bruins responded with two more conference wins, but were unexpectedly upset by Arizona at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 12. That took some luster off a high-profile crosstown matchup against USC the following week, which the Trojans won in a 48-45 thriller.

A win at Cal to end the regular season kept the possibility of a 10-win season alive, but the Bruins fell short of tying the program record for wins in a season after the Sun Bowl defeat.

What went right?

Though a 9-4 season after an 8-1 start seems underwhelming, the Bruins built upon last year’s 8-4 season and have a strong recruiting class heading into 2023.

UCLA went 6-3 in conference play, highlighted by two Top 15 victories over Washington and Utah in consecutive weeks. The Bruins were in contention to make the Pac-12 title game up until the final weeks of the season, and burst into the national radar after the 8-1 start.

That was mostly due to a prolific offense, which set a school record for total offense in a season at 6,545 yards and eclipsed the 3,000-yard rushing mark for the fifth time in program history.

The tandem of Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet carved up opposing defenses, giving UCLA a one-two punch few programs possessed.

Thompson-Robinson played like a savvy fifth-year veteran with the explosive threat of using his feet, while Charbonnet churned out one 100-yard rushing game after another with a combination of speed and hard-nosed strength.

What went wrong?

UCLA’s defense improved from last season under new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, but wasn’t nearly good enough to match the offense.

Three of the Bruins’ four losses this season were one-possession games, with the offense scoring at least 28 points in each of them.

The Bruins defended the run well, but were gashed in the secondary, finishing ahead of only Cal against the pass in the Pac-12. McGovern, who missed the last five games of the regular season due to an unspecified illness, coached in the Sun Bowl and has one more year remaining on his contract.

In perhaps a microcosm of UCLA’s defensive struggles, the Bruins took the lead in the Sun Bowl with 34 seconds left on a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive led by backup quarterback Ethan Garbers – only for the defense to allow Pitt to get into field-goal range to win the game.

Who’s going?

Thompson-Robinson will be the biggest loss for UCLA. The quarterback has steered Chip Kelly’s offense for five seasons, and was one of the most efficient at his position in college football this past year.

How the Bruins adapt to life after No. 1 leaves campus will be a looming question heading into 2023.

UCLA is also expected to lose top receiver Jake Bobo, who transferred from Duke for his redshirt senior season and finished with 57 catches for 817 yards and 7 touchdowns – all teams highs. Kazmeir Allen, UCLA’s fastest receiver, declared for the NFL draft ahead of the bowl game.

Other key players who have exhausted their eligibility include offensive lineman Atonio Mafi and defensive backs Stephan Blaylock and Mo Osling III.

Nicholas Barr-Mira, who handled both placekicking and punting duties this season, entered the transfer portal. His long snapper, Jack Landherr IV, also declared for the NFL draft.

Who might be gone?

Charbonnet, who led the country in all-purpose yards with 168 per game, is expected to turn pro. He did not play in the Sun Bowl. If Charbonnet declares for the draft, freshman TJ Harden, the former Inglewood High star who ran for 111 yards and a touchdown in the Sun Bowl loss, and redshirt junior Keegan Jones appear to be in line to compete to be next season’s lead running back.

Standout linebacker Laiatu Latu, coming off his redshirt junior season, is a name to watch. Latu transferred from Washington and had a breakout season, leading the team with 9.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss to earn first team All-Pac-12 honors. He was one of three players to share AP Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Darius Muasau, who started all 12 games at inside linebacker, finished his senior season earning a spot on the All-Pac-12 second team.

Who’s on the way?

UCLA scored a major recruiting win when five-star quarterback Dante Moore flipped his commitment from Oregon to the Bruins earlier this month.

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Moore could immediately compete for the starting quarterback position next year, though the Bruins have a number of quarterbacks waiting in the wing. Garbers, who backed up Thompson-Robinson this past season, fared well in limited playing time and led the late clutch touchdown drive in the Sun Bowl. Also on the roster are Justyn Martin, Chase Griffin and Kent State transfer Collin Schlee.

Moore was part of a stellar 13-member recruiting class for Kelly, which 247Sports ranks as 28th in the country. It also included two four-star wide receiver recruits in Mater Dei’s Jeremiah McClure and Norco’s Grant Gray.

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