UCLA

UCLA vs. Alabama State Week 2: Postgame Takeaways

Breaking down the most notable storylines that came out of the Bruins’ win over the Hornets on Saturday.

The Bruins stormed ahead and never looked back, locking up a big win over the Hornets with their reserves doing a lot of the heavy lifting down the stretch.

UCLA football (2-0) beat Alabama State (2-1) 45-7 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. Unlike in their season opener, the Bruins never trailed this time around, and they stymied the Hornets’ upset bid essentially from start to finish.

These are three of the biggest takeaways, narratives and questions to come out of Saturday’s game.

Backfield depth better than anticipated

One of the biggest question marks entering the 2022 season was surrounding Zach Charbonnet’s running mates.

Brittain Brown was gone, and for the first time in three seasons, the Bruins did not look like they had a true No. 2 back to throw out there alongside their star workhorse. After Saturday, it still does not seem like there is a pure No. 2 back in the room, but there are plenty of options who could fill in admirably if need be.

Keegan Jones had the least efficient day of all the running backs, earning the start with Charbonnet unavailable. He got almost all of his work in the first half, ending the day with 33 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Jones was effective in the passing game, though, adding another 31 yards on four catches.

There were four reserve running backs who each got time, and they all knocked it out of the park.

True freshman TJ Harden was next in line after Jones, and he went for 56 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Harden’s 8.0 yards per carry came with a long of 15, too, so it isn’t as if there was some outlier that inflated his stats – he was just incredibly efficient all day long.

From there, quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-running back Colson Yankoff added 35 yards on six carries and broke several tackles along the way. Christian Grubb and Deshun Murrell took over in the fourth quarter, with the former track athlete going for 55 yards and a touchdown on seven carries and the Alabama-native underclassman going for 34 yards on six carries.

Each member of the backfield has their own feel-good story – Grubb and Yankoff returning from serious long-term injuries and Harden and Murrell contributing so early on in their careers – and their numbers matched that. The four reserves went for 180 yards on 24 carries, and the Bruins rushed for five touchdowns as a team.

Time will tell if the quartet can be consistent contributors as the competition level increases, but it was good to get a glimpse at their potential Saturday nonetheless.

Secondary woes make their return

The Bruins played a near perfect game on defense in Week 1, save for one extended touchdown drive.

The scoreboard would imply the same about their Week 2 win over Alabama State, but the defensive backs did not exactly dominate this time around.

That isn’t to say all the individual performances were bad – Devin Kirkwood was pretty much lock down on the outside, and young corners Jaylin Davies and DJ Justice both capitalized with nice interceptions in the second half. Kenny Churchwell continued to deliver big hits – even if one questionably drew a targeting call – and the unit has managed to stay largely healthy thus far.

But Alabama State was getting whatever it wanted through the air early on, and a lot of that had to do with the 10-yard pre-snap cushions on 3rd-and-longs. For anyone hoping defensive Bill McGovern would be the anti-Jerry Azzinaro, that was not a good sign.

Starting quarterback Myles Crawley may have ended the day with a subpar 119.1 passer rating, but it stood at a far more respectable 136.7 at halftime. Crawley overcame the Bruins’ blitz and made the easy, quick pass on several occasions, and Alabama State was actually outgaining UCLA through the air and overall one-plus quarter into the contest.

Most of the drives stalled out or ended in bad turnovers, so the defense did its job in regards to a “bend, don’t break” mentality. And the Hornets admittedly have some decent talent at receiver – namely Colorado transfer La’Vontae Shenault – but not enough to the point where they should be racking up multiple long gains against the Bruins.

Schematically, there was much to be desired from the defensive backfield Saturday. South Alabama is leaps and bounds better than Alabama State, so it may not even take until conference play for UCLA to pay for its mistakes in that realm.

Nonconference play may turn out to be irrelevant

It was pretty clear right off the bat that the Bruins could go 3-0 to start the year and still not crack the AP top 25 or change anyone’s mind regarding their national standing.

Two games into their weakest nonconference slate in program history, that seems to be holding true.

Attendance grew from a record-low 27,143 the previous week to 33,727 against Alabama State. It was a notable increase week-over-week, but still only about 1,000 more than the previous record-low. Those who were in the stands seemed to enjoy their team’s blowout win, as well as the Mighty Marching Hornets’ performance at halftime, but there still doesn’t appear to be much juice around the program at the moment.

The on-the-field product has been pretty vanilla – by the coaches and players’ own admission. That goes for the offensive playcalling, the stats, the environment and the outcomes. UCLA was projected to win by a lot in both of its games, and it pretty much did just that.

That isn’t to say that these Bruins and lame or boring or disappointing, just that these games haven’t done much to reinvigorate the program. In all likelihood, they never would have been able to anyways, given the caliber of opponent and timing of the matchups.

A 70-point win like the kind Utah and Oregon put up this weekend could have been something to aspire to, though, and it’s hard not to think about UCLA playing Michigan this past weekend instead of its first-ever FCS opponent.

Many pundits said it before the start of the season, and it seems to be going exactly according to plan – nothing really matters for this team until Washington comes to the Rose Bowl on Sept. 30.

Until then, fans should just hope the Bruins stay healthy and coast to more simple victories. For as much star power as there is at the top of this roster, don’t expect them to break any barriers and drum up too many headlines in the meantime.

Follow Connon on Twitter at @SamConnon
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