UCLA makes a statement with emphatic 38-27 victory over No. 16 LSU

This UCLA team might be for real.

Through three years of the Chip Kelly era in Westwood, it was fair to wonder whether this rebuilding project was going to come to fruition. In Kelly's first two years, UCLA had a combined 7-17 record. But the Bruins started to show some real flashes in 2020, leading many to believe that 2021 would be the year they would turn the corner.

If Saturday night’s 38-27 win over No. 16 LSU was any indication, UCLA has zoomed past that corner and could be a legitimate contender in the Pac-12 South.

UCLA impressed in a Week 1 win over Hawaii, but that was Hawaii. This was LSU from the big, bad SEC. On this night in the Rose Bowl, though, UCLA looked every bit as big and every bit as bad as the mighty Tigers, who are just two seasons removed from a national championship.

The biggest question entering this game was whether or not the Bruins would hold up in the trenches. Not only did they hold up, they completely controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet (24) looks back at an LSU defender during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet (24) looks back at an LSU defender during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

While the Bruins’ offense gashed LSU for 208 yards rushing, the defense had constant pressure in the face of LSU quarterback Max Johnson. Johnson made a few plays, mainly via his connection with Kayshon Boutte, who had nine catches for 148 yards and three scores. But UCLA completely eliminated LSU’s rushing attack (25 carries for 48 yards) and were able to rush the passer at will, hitting Johnson over and over again.

UCLA’s offense was just as impressive. The running back duo of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown proved formidable, opening up opportunities for quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the passing game. Most of those opportunities came off of play-action, and big-time tight end Greg Dulcich made his presence felt early on.

LSU opened the scoring at 7-0 early in the second quarter, but UCLA responded just a play later when Thompson-Robinson hit Dulcich in stride for a highlight reel 75-yard score.

From there, it was off to the races for the UCLA offense. The Bruins took a 14-10 lead into halftime and were up 24-20 going into the fourth. That’s when the Bruins put the pedal to the metal.

They would tack on touchdowns on their first two fourth-quarter possessions, marching 73 yards on eight plays and then another 81 yards on a subsequent eight-play drive. A Brown touchdown made it 31-20, and then Thompson-Robinson hit Kyle Philips for a 45-yard score to deliver a crushing blow to the Tigers.

When the dust settled, the Bruins amassed 468 total yards. Thompson-Robinson wasn’t the most efficient, but he hit several big plays and finished with 260 passing yards and three touchdowns on just 9-of-16 throwing.

Charbonnet and Brown, meanwhile, finished with 117 and 92 rushing yards apiece. Charbonnet, the Michigan transfer, was especially impressive. When he wasn’t zooming past LSU defenders, he was breaking through arm tackles and accelerating into the second level.

What does this mean for UCLA?

UCLA lost four games by a combined 15 points in 2020, so it was pretty evident that Kelly's group was close. Now, Saturday night's performance has the chance to be a turning point for the Bruins moving forward.

The LSU team UCLA faced certainly has its flaws. It's nowhere near as good as the 2019 team that won the national title, but it still serves as a legitimate barometer for where the Bruins are as a program. Now, Kelly will be tasked with keeping the show rolling into the rest of the season.

A non-conference game against a Fresno State team that gave Oregon fits is on the horizon next Saturday. From there, Pac-12 play opens and the schedule isn't easy but the team on display Saturday night has the talent to compete for the division title.

What's next for LSU?

The pressure is going to start to turn up for Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge.

LSU followed up its national title by going 5-5 in 2020. Opening up the season with a cross-country trip to Los Angeles — especially amid Hurricane Ida — was never going to be easy, but there are still some significant red flags to come from a game like this.

The offensive line is especially concerning. LSU could not run the ball, nor could it keep defenders out of Johnson's face. If the protection issues get cleaned up, LSU is going to win some games, especially with a guy like Boutte catching passes.

Luckily, McNeese State and Central Michigan are next on the schedule. That will allow the Tigers to correct some of their most pressing issues before SEC play begins at the end of the month.