As USC and UCLA face off with a Pac-12 championship spot on the line, Daily Trojan Sports editor Patrick Warren asks Daily bruin Sports Editor Sam Settleman on UCLA’s season.
DT: How was the atmosphere at the games? I haven’t been able to get to the Rose Bowl this season. And obviously there was this kind of narrative about, you know, the same presence and everything. How does it look in person?
DB: I think it looks as bad as people make it seem because I mean I know The New York Times recently published an article about the visitor issues they believe have been encountered at the Rose Bowl this year. And that was a type of narrative that was pretty strong in a lot of the early games of the season. It’s kind of died down a bit, not for good reason, just because UCLA has had a few games down the road and you know the team is winning and that covers up all the other conversations around the team. But I mean early in the season you have these games against Bowling Green, South Alabama, Alabama State at home and 100 degree heat in August and September… Nobody really comes to these games and you can’t blame them.
But then you get the games against Washington on Friday night at the Rose Bowl, Utah, a ranked matchup again at the Rose Bowl, and you don’t even crack 50,000 fans in the stadium and that’s a pretty big disappointment. I think that’s maybe the one week [wherein] That won’t really be the dominant narrative as the stands will be packed for USC whether it’s filled by USC fans or UCLA fans or a combination of both. So the Rose Bowl will look very different on Saturday than it has throughout the year.
But yeah, that atmosphere is certainly not like it was five, six years ago when Tim Moore was here and they were averaging 70,000 fans per game. And even last year, at the LSU game, I think they came in at 67,000 and that atmosphere, I mean, I was in the press box for that, that atmosphere felt completely different than any game this year. Even if you beat ranked teams like Washington and Utah at home, it’s a big difference when 45,000 people are there compared to 70,000 at the Rose Bowl.
DT: Talk about what expectations you had for that UCLA team two or three months ago and how they’ve held up throughout the season.
Speaker 2: I think my expectations were pretty much in line with what they did last year. They went 8-4 a season ago. And I think that surprised some people because in the early Chip Kelly days it was kind of out of the question; You lost a lot of soccer games. It showed in there somehow [coronavirus] year they were ready to take the next step. And they did that last year with an 8-4 record, but it wasn’t anything particularly impressive. I think the LSU win was probably the hallmark of that season, and that wasn’t a huge win in hindsight anyway.
If you look at the schedule and you have three easy conference games, Washington and Utah at home, you put the Oregon game on the road as a loss, USC maybe as a loss, but I mean that was it; 9-3 might have been the expectation based on their schedule alone… Really not much has changed over the year – I still remember the first game of the season against Bowling Green when they went three and out on the first drive and their punt blocked and came back for a touchdown and then you’re like, ‘Okay, this team isn’t going to go 9-3 like we all thought.’ I think once they actually start winning the games that they’re supposed to win, maybe you’ll catch up and be like, ‘Oh, maybe this team can fight for a Pac-12 championship or [College Football Playoff].’ And that’s obviously out of the equation now, but the Pac-12 championship is still on the table and I think that would far exceed any expectations I had this year.
DT:A big part of those 9 or 10 wins is [quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson] , apparently. He’s a senior and he’s been there a long time, unlike that young man in Caleb Williams; As far as you can tell, what does leading DTR bring to the team?
DB: I think that’s probably even more true a few weeks ago than it has been in the past few weeks, but you can tell when DTR is playing at its best, when he’s playing those highlight roles, when he’s feeling confident and cheering for the team, it makes such a difference to the whole team and the whole offense. They really go like DTR for the most part, and when he’s got a game to forget and he’s missing a few shots here and there, offense starts to drop a bit.
[But it’s] not just his ability on the field but, as you said, his leadership in his fifth year. He’s been in this offense as long as anyone. Just the camaraderie with Chip and just that relationship kind of makes this offense — I’d say unstoppable, but they looked unstoppable against Arizona — but for most of the year, they’ve been unstoppable at all stages.
A lot of this has to do with DTR as you said. I mean, you can do it on the ground, you can do it in the air. There’s a reason he legitimately attended the Heisman call a few weeks ago. I think he’s regressed a bit in the past few weeks and he’s showing somehow that this offense may need to rely a little more on his aggression game than they’d hoped. But leadership is obviously the biggest thing he brings to the table. I don’t know if he has the ability to be an NFL quarterback or if he has the talent to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, but that leadership will take this offense to victory.
DT: On the other side of the ball, in true Pac-12 fashion, is the defense [has allowed] a fair bit of points this season. What are some of your concerns in defending against Trojan attack?
DB: Yes, everything is the answer. I think everyone has been talking about it coming this year. It’s always like this at UCLA, you know, it’s not about if their defense is going to be good, but will the defense be able to do enough to make their offense win games?
The defense would never win games for them. On the defensive line there were a few veterans who were injured earlier this year, so it’s a pretty thin group at the moment. Linebacker depth was an issue from the start and secondary depth I mean I think [sophomore defensive back] Devin Kirkwood, who is now a real sophomore, was expected [the lead cornerback]… He’d be the guy on defense to keep your hat on — and he’s missed a few games lately through injury, missed some time, but he hasn’t quite stellar as UCLA did after one had expected pretty solid freshman campaign.
On top of that they have some solid security players, I think maybe that’s where they are strongest. But the defensive line looked pretty bad against Arizona, just an inability to contain it [sophomore quarterback Jayden] by Laura. And I think you get a guy like Caleb Williams with so much talent, a guy who can make any shot on the field, you give him time to throw the ball at any time. And as you said, receiver depth is also a USC strength. So the combination of where UCLA’s defensive line is right now and where their secondary line is right now, I don’t think stopping Caleb Willams and USC’s offense is even going to be on the table. UCLA offense needs to get the job done and probably rack up 50 points to get a win on Saturday, and I’m sure USC feels the same way from their side.
DT: So, USC was bitten by the injury virus. I was wondering what injuries the Bruins fear next week? Are there key players who are questionable?
DB: As I just said, Kirkwood will be a question mark. I think he should be back and ready to go out. And that would be a great loss for them if they didn’t have it. Apart from this, [senior running back Zach] Charbonnet missed the game against Arizona State [which was] kind of unexpected, but he’ll most likely be back. I mean he played Arizona so he should be fine.
Regarding recent injuries, they are mostly healthy. The only big question mark I would say is [redshirt junior wide receiver] Kazmeir Allen who was like a home run hitter for this team. He’s a guy who can hit the 75-yard game on offense and start a spark, and he showed that against USC a season ago. He missed the Arizona game this weekend. He should be back out there, I don’t think it’s anything important [from what] it sounded like. But if not, it would be a huge loss for UCLA.
DT: I’ll end it how you end [my Q&A]. What is your score prediction?DB: I’ll probably change that 3 more times a week, but I’ll go with 49-42 UCLA. I know I said UCLA needs 50 to win, but I’ll give them 49 and maybe they can get a win out of that.