Welcome aboard the UCLA hype train

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Credit: Associated Press

The Bruins hype train rolled along Pasadena at full steam, then pulled into the Rose Bowl and steamrolled Hawaii 44-10 in the season opener on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon.

Choo! Choo! 

This reinvention of the Bruins’ offense, their weaponry, their depth, and their growth have provided a lift. Certainly enough, Chip Kelly has UCLA football pointed in the right direction, it seems, though it was only a small sample size. Come back next Saturday if you want to see how the Bruins would fare against stiffer competition. Just as they have hope entering a new season, they’ll also get an early test next weekend when they face No. 13 LSU.

The Bruins were an offensive juggernaut, and after a truly dominant performance to kick off their season, UCLA can almost assert itself as one of the top schools to beat in the Pac-12. Beating the Tigers next Saturday would be a strong statement, that they are primed and ready to rocket deep into contention and gain favor in the nation. So maybe there’s hope on the horizon for the Bruins, after just one game.  

This team has talent in abundance and has a familiar veteran core of 20 returners. It’s early, and easy, in fairness, to anoint UCLA with the “elite” label and even compare the Bruins to other national powerhouses, and prematurely hold the team in such high regard. This is how they might be seen if they sustain this level of play all season long. Their reality is very reassuring after they provided a glimpse of what still could be, and they certainly reified their aspirations and vision for a better future. The aim this year is simple, as demonstrated by the Bruins: Reserve a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

It is reasonable to wonder what next weekend’s matchup will bring, and whether the Bruins can find a way to sustain their winning formula they created. The innovation and creativity with which Kelly has worked to bring this program are both propitious and exciting. For the Bruins, time and time again, it has worked. Their guru is the major catalyst for bringing UCLA into a new sphere of recognition, going from average to potentially top notch. Their creator has pushed to do more to foster a thriving culture and, in the process, has seen extraordinary growth from his players, on both sides of the ball. Their innovator has dug deep into his bags of tricks, and with a complete library of playbooks, he has found an offensive blueprint to winning. It’s an offense built on the running game, it has to be built on what they can do well. 

With the collection of talent assembled, Kelly can launch an all-out rushing attack and keep defenses guessing. And, rest assured, he utilizes each and every tool in his team’s offense in an effort to enhance UCLA’s odds of being playoff bound. The Bruins’ balanced offense, which produced an average of 35 points per game a season ago, thrived well with a run-heavy attack built around running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. 

Can the Bruins win more games than they lose this season? If they can use a power attack to dismantle teams behind the rushing efforts of Charbonnet and Brown, then they should be almost impossible to stop. You can’t ignore the production from a duo of running backs, who combined for 184 yards and four touchdowns. And so with everybody watching, the Bruins divert the national title conversation after making a little noise. It’s all easy to say now, but there’s still no way of telling if they can continue to take a step in the right direction. There’s still a long ways to go before we know for sure who these Bruins truly are. 

The question now turns to how good the Bruins can become. The answer could ultimately change the landscape of the Pac-12 South and strengthen their case to be perennial contenders. It showed in their play. They did a lot of great things and they played to their players’ strengths. And now that the running game was a big part of the offensive game plan, look for the Bruins to establish the run and set the tone early from the opening kickoff. It’s not a secret that Kelly will utilize his running talent even more than usual this season, coming up with fresh ideas to help turn weaknesses into strengths. 

It’s hard to say what next weekend, next month and next year will bring, but when you look at the dynamics of this UCLA team and how they got to this point, they have a strong core of talented players to be excited about. Anyone who expected UCLA to push Kelly out the door can likely forget about it after he planted a seed for the kind of long-term success that has always eluded the Bruins. This year’s team has already accomplished something last year’s team never did. No Bruins team before Saturday had won a nonconference game in four seasons under Coach Kelly. UCLA was a staggering 0-6 in nonconference play, including a pair of losses to both Cincinnati and Oklahoma.  

Charbonnet, who has garnered early attention locally, was at Michigan the past two seasons before transferring. It was noteworthy how often he touched the ball, carried it, ran with it and raced to the end zone. He rushed for 106 yards and three touchdowns on just six carries in the first half of his UCLA debut. He’s flashed brilliant stretches of play during his first game with his new squad, and made himself be known to the UCLA faithful. Against the Rainbow Warriors, the Bruins rode Charbonnet early to see if he could establish himself as somewhat of that legitimate threat, and certainly he did. The hard-charging, pile-moving newcomer broke five tackles on his way to a 47-yard touchdown run.

He played a vital role in helping UCLA race out to a 31-3 halftime lead as the Bruins looked pretty good and dominated in every facet of the game, scoring on their first five possessions. Charbonnet’s breakaway speed and ability to make big plays gave the Bruins a game in which they likely can build positive momentum and confidence. It was his stellar play that helped him carve out his own role with his new team, scoring on a pair of runs in the first quarter. And on most plays, he quickly barreled his way through would-be tacklers, exploded all over the field and created enough separation between himself and Hawaii defenders.

Thank you, Jim Harbaugh.

UCLA has positioned itself to reach double-digit wins by surrounding Dorian Thompson-Robinson with additional firepower. The fourth-year quarterback had a mediocre first half, his biggest play came on the opening drive in the third quarter, when he capped a five-play, 75-yard drive with a 44-yard strike to Kazmeir Allen to make it 37-3. His scoring toss moved him into a tie with Troy Aikman for seventh in school history with 41 touchdown passes. 

The headline on the front page used to be that the offense was worryingly predictable and overly conservative for its own good. The Bruins hit another level offensively when Kelly finally put it all together to cool off his hot seat. And now, we are finding out that Kelly is cut out for the UCLA coaching job. It turns out he’s not the wrong guy for a program that has been trending upward. 

Culture has proven to be a powerful force, more powerful than the rushing attack that the Bruins have established and executed so brilliantly. UCLA showed a knack for moving the ball on the ground and made it a tough day for Hawaii. This Bruins offense seems well set up to be the kind of high-flying offense that can carry a team very far. 

What an impressive start to the season for UCLA. Everything about this game looked, sounded and felt different. The difference being, a potent rushing attack opens up the passing game and balances out the offense. There’s a reason to believe the Bruins collectively should be better. There’s a lot to like about this team, and it starts, obviously, with the offense.

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