(UPDATED WITH POSTGAME QUOTES)
PASADENA, Calif. – Who knew Bruins were faster than Tigers?
UCLA scored on two straight possessions in the second quarter and No. 13 ranked LSU never could chase down the home team in the game’s final 40 minutes as the Tigers lost their second straight season opener 38-27 here Saturday night before a Rose Bowl crowd of 68,123.
The Bruins (2-0), armed with offensive weapons – powerful running backs and a clutch pass-catching tight end – that apparently weren’t in LSU’s arsenal, couldn’t be caught much to the chagrin of 20,000 Tigers’ fans who made the trip.
“Everybody in the locker room was very confident going into this game,” said UCLA senior starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 260 yards by completing just nine passes but three for touchdowns. “Everyone expected to win this game.”
It’s hard to say what LSU anticipated in just its second trip to California in 36 years. The Tigers certainly didn’t expect to get physically handled, even as LSU cut the UCLA lead to four points three times.
The last occasion was at 24-20 on a 33-yard Cade York field goal with 1:07 left in the third quarter. But from that point, the Bruins grinded their collective heel in the Tigers’ throat.
In the fourth quarter, UCLA outscored LSU 14-7 and outgained the Tigers 165-78, ending scoring drives of 73 and 81 yards with a 1-yard Brittain Brown TD and a 45-yard strike from Dorian Thompson-Robinson to Kyle Philips.
“We didn’t perform like we’re supposed to at LSU,” said Ed Orgeron, who became the first Tigers’ head coach to lose consecutive season openers since Curley Hallman dropped four straight. “It’s my responsibility. I told that to the team. Obviously, we’re going to look at it schematically where we’ve got to get better.”
UCLA eventually shredded new LSU defensive coordinator Daronte Jones’ schemes for 459 yards, including 260 yards passing (on just nine completions) and three TDs from Thompson-Robinson and a combined 213 yards rushing and two TDs from running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown.
“We have the ability right now to run the ball,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “And if we are running the ball well, we’ll stick with what’s right. I could care less how we get across the goal line. We could throw it across 27 times or we could run it across 27 times. We’ve got the ability to do both.”
LSU’s offense, with new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz calling the shots, was shackled because it had virtually no rushing attack.
Without junior running back John Emery Jr. who was serving a previously unannounced one-game suspension for academics, Tigers’ RBs Ty Davis-Price and Josh Williams and quarterback Max Johnson combined for just 48 rushng yards on 25 carries.
Johnson completed 26 of 46 for 330 yards and three TDs, all to wide receiver Kayshon Boutte who had nine catches for 148 yards.
“I feel like coming into the game we were energized, but kind of started off slow,” Boutte said. “Throughout the game we started to pick it up as an offense, but I feel like if we had worked harder and faster to get going earlier in the game, it would have been a different ball game.”
The Tigers trailed at halftime 14-10 and were lucky for it to still be a one-possession game.
While UCLA had Charbonnet run for 70 yards on seven carries and Thompson-Robinson throwing for 159 yards, one TD and averaged 31.8 yards completion, LSU’s offense was one-dimensional.
The Tigers, outgained in total offense yardage at the half 214 to 141, ran 12 times for 3 yards. The lack of a running game just put more pressure on Johnson, who threw for 138 yards and one TD, yet he averaged 9.8 yards on his 14 completions (in 28 attempts).
He had his best success on LSU’s 63-yard, 8-play scoring drive that gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead on his 3-yard TD pass to Boutte with 12:34 left in the first quarter.
Johnson completed 4 of 5 passes for 45 yards and seemed to be in a much better rhythm.
But UCLA grabbed momentum by scoring touchdowns on its next two possessions.
First came Thompson-Robinson’s stunning 75-yard scoring strike to tight end Greg Dulcich on UCLA’s first offensive snap after LSU’s score. He was wide open when he made the catch and went the distance when Tigers’ safety Major Burns badly whiffed on a tackle.
“It opened up exactly how we thought it would,” Dulcich said. “Did a lot of game planning, so happy that it worked out that way.”
Then, UCLA drove 71 yards on six plays for a 12-yard Charbonnet TD run with 9:45 left for a 14-7 edge. LSU managed to reduce it to 14-10 with 3:53 before halftime on a 26-yard FG by York after an Eli Ricks interception in the second quarter that stood up as the halftime lead.
LSU received the second half kickoff. It had gained 25 yards on a drive when Johnson, under pressure from two pass rushers, threw an interception that was returned 34 yards by UCLA inside linebacker Caleb Johnson to the LSU 17.
“I was trying to figure out where they were coming from,” Johnson said of the UCLA pass rush. “We pretty much had it, except I think one time where they got us.”
Three plays later, Dorian-Thompson found the mismatch he wanted with Bruins’ wide receiver Chad Cota working against LSU linebacker Micah Baskerville. Cota spun Baskerville around and was wide open when he caught a 14-yard TD pass with 10:52 left in the third quarter for a 24-10 lead.
LSU badly needed to find an answer and got one less than two minutes later when Boutte used an official as a shield, caught a Johnson pass and sped 44 yards for a TD to slice UCLA’s margin to 21-17 with 8:56 remaining in the period.
There was a lot of man [coverage] on the outside, so just win your one-on-ones,” Boutte said.
Placekickers Nicholas Barr-Mira of UCLA and LSUs York traded 43 and 33-yard field goals respectively to send the game into a fourth quarter that the Bruins dominated.
“Coming off last year, we knew that we just weren’t finishing games,” UCLA safety Stephen Blaylock said. “The biggest thing we were focused on this year, just finishing games and playing hard, playing fast.”