With the pocket collapsing around Dante Moore and the pressure building on the sideline for his coach to do something about it, UCLA employed a few countermeasures against Utah.
The Bruins increasingly used their maximum protection package, which involved having the tight end and running back assist in blocking, and shuffled through different rotations in their offensive line in search of the best combination. Most notably, Khadere Kounta subbed in for Bruno Fina at left tackle in the second half.
None of it could save the day. Moore was sacked on three of his final four plays and the Bruins were left with a deflating 14-7 loss that included a season-worst seven sacks.
After having nearly a week to digest the defeat, UCLA coach Chip Kelly offered a few suggestions about how his team might better protect its true freshman quarterback.
“Just execution, technique, everything — making sure that everybody’s on the same page,” Kelly said Thursday, alluding to problems that plagued the offensive line. “There were some communication issues that we’ll get straightened out. We’ve got a new group and we do have some newer faces on the O-line that haven’t been here.”
Fina and right guard Josh Carlin are first-year starters. In his first season since leaving Old Dominion, Kounta is one of three transfers, alongside starting left guard Spencer Holstege (Purdue) and backup right guard Jake Wiley (Colorado). The only returning starters are center Duke Clemens and right tackle Garrett DiGiorgio.
All the turnover has led to problems communicating to one another which lineman is responsible for which defender, allowing defensive linemen and linebackers to go unblocked. A defensive tackle who was not picked up pummeled Moore, causing the quarterback’s first fumble, and a linebacker who was not accounted for stripped the ball on Moore’s second fumble. UCLA has allowed 11 sacks in four games, tied for No. 104 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
“It’s just a matter of those guys getting a chance to get together and work together, and four games in, they’re doing a good job,” Kelly said, “but we need to continue to improve.”
Though Moore’s lost fumble on the speed option late in the third quarter was a rare run for the quarterback against the Utes, Kelly suggested that he was confident in Moore’s ability to run the ball when needed.
“He’s good,” Kelly said before referencing Moore’s fleet-footed predecessor. “He’s not Dorian [Thompson-Robinson] — I mean, I think Dorian was a special quarterback when you look at him from that standpoint — but Dante …. can affect a game with [his] feet in terms of key plays.”
UCLA’s running game, which had been among the best in the nation before last weekend, also suffered as a result of the breakdowns on the offensive line. T.J. Harden averaged 2.8 yards per carry and Carson Steele averaged 2.6 yards, with both running backs carrying the ball 11 times. Add in the sacks and UCLA netted just nine yards rushing, an average of 0.3 yards per carry.
“Give Utah credit, I think they have a really good defense, one of the best defenses that we’ll play,” Kelly said, “but there were plays to be made and we just didn’t execute to our capability.”
Kelly said former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who listed the coach as a reference in his recent letter to the New York Jets requesting to join their practice squad in the wake of Aaron Rodgers’ season-ending injury, had befriended UCLA’s Justyn Martin while training at the Bruins’ practice facility.
“That’s just the type of person Kaep is, helping out other young players in the game and giving them his knowledge and explaining drills and things like that,” Kelly said. “It was really nice of Kaep to do that.”
Kelly, who coached Kaepernick with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, said the Jets had not contacted him about the quarterback.
Colson Yankoff has averaged only 19.6 yards on his kickoff returns, including a season-best 23 yards, but Kelly said those numbers are a reflection of blocking problems, not the player, whom the coach praised for his speed and vision. “I could put you deep,” Kelly told a reporter, “and you wouldn’t gain any yards if we don’t block for you.” … UCLA is 2-4 in games after bye weeks under Kelly, with the victories coming at Stanford in 2019 and at home against Colorado in 2021. Washington State, UCLA’s next opponent, also does not play this week. … UCLA’s game against the Cougars on Oct. 7 at the Rose Bowl will be televised by Pac-12 Network starting at noon.