UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was running so much Saturday in the high altitude at Colorado that he was focusing on catching his breath.
“Just going fast,” Thompson-Robinson said to reporters after the game. “That’s what we want to do. We want to start fast.”
“Fast” was exactly how UCLA played in its 45-17 win at Folsom Field to start the season 4-0 for the first time since 2015.
The ingredients were all there in the Bruins’ Pac-12 opener: An up-tempo offense that shredded Colorado for 515 yards, a balance between the passing (266 yards) and running (249 yards) attacks, and a defense that held an opponent to under 100 rushing yards for the third time this season.
A major disclaimer: The opponent was Colorado, which statistically is one of the worst teams in college football — on both sides of the ball. On Saturday, the Buffaloes dropped plenty of catchable balls and left gaping holes on defense, allowing Zach Charbonnet to prance up and down the field with ease for 104 yards and three touchdowns. Thompson-Robinson added 56 yards on seven carries, along with 19 of 23 passing for 234 yards in the air.
After surviving by a point against South Alabama last week, UCLA on Saturday provided a glimpse of what it can be this season.
UCLA possessed the ball for eight fewer minutes than Colorado and ran 13 fewer plays, but it was more than enough. One play after another, the Bruins were streaking upfield, whether it was a Charbonnet run or a wide-open catch. The offense averaged eight yards per pay. This was a signature Chip Kelly up-tempo game.
“You want to play football downhill, not uphill,” Kelly said. “With the volume of offense that we have, their ability to run a lot of tempo things is really beneficial to us.”
Colorado had fleeting bursts of hope. The Buffaloes drove into UCLA territory on their first drive, but Cole Becker missed a 54-yard field goal and the Bruins took advantage by jumping out to a 14-0 lead.
“This is the type of game where we need to come out there with the wheels rolling, being able to start fast and not try to put ourselves in a hole early,” Thompson-Robinson said of his pre-game message to his teammates.
The Buffaloes ended the first half with a touchdown to claw within 21-10, but UCLA took less than two minutes to respond out of the locker room with a Charbonnet 46-yard touchdown run.
The Bruins outscored the Buffaloes 24-7 in the second half, adding to their ledger of second-half dominance this season. UCLA is ahead 78-21 on opponents after halftime through four games.
It all comes back to an up-tempo mindset and a high standard of conditioning.
“We run a lot of tempo, where we’re always trying to make sure that we’re working on our conditioning,” said receiver Matt Sykes, who had four catches for 48 yards and the first touchdown of his college career. “It’s a 24-hour job. It’s not just practice, but I think all that and our mindset and our lifestyle. It all helps.”
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That pays off in second halves, if the offense is humming along.
“Especially when you come out to the second half and we keep playing tempo, you can definitely tell: The defense starts to wear down,” Sykes said.
With the win, UCLA keeps pace at 4-0 with crosstown rival USC and with Friday’s opponent, Washington.
The schedule is about to get a lot tougher, with three ranked opponents coming up. No. 15 Washington’s offense, which leads the Pac-12, will be the biggest test so far for a UCLA defense that has remained a work in progress and is banged up on the line. No. 12 Utah looms in two weeks, followed by 13th-ranked Oregon.
Four games in, the Bruins have done exactly what they had to do with the schedule in front of them. In a few weeks, they’ll have a better idea of whether this could be a special season.