Takeaways from UCLA’s ugly season-opening win over Bowling Green

UCLA running back Braxton Todd, right, is tackled by Bowling Green linebacker DJ Taylor during the first half Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

It was the kind of opening game that made a statement.

Bring Alabama… State.

UCLA appeared to need another tune-up rather than a showdown after a botched 45-17 win over Bowling Green on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Even the Bruins’ unanswered 38 points couldn’t completely mask the stench of a first half in which they blundered after blunder.

Here are five takeaways from the game:

It wasn’t judgment day

UCLA wide receiver Kazmeir Allen heads the ball as Bowling Green safety Chris Bacon attempts a tackle.

UCLA wide receiver Kazmeir Allen, right, heads the ball as Bowling Green safety Chris Bacon attempts a tackle during the second half Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

As bad as that sounds, you’d be smart not to make sweeping statements about the Bruins.

Yes, it was an ugly victory, but first impressions of a team are often misleading. Do you remember last season? Two games later, UCLA was a hot pick to make the college football playoffs, and how did that turn out?

UCLA coach Chip Kelly was wise to point out on Saturday that teams move on a season and that the hope was that this would be the worst his team would play in 2022. More important was that the Bruins easily withstood their two turnovers, a blocked punt for a touchdown and a turnover after things took a scary turn in the first half.

“We dug ourselves a little hole to start,” Kelly said, “but I was really proud of how our guys reacted.”

And this defense?

UCLA defensive lineman Grayson Murphy fires Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald.

UCLA defensive lineman Grayson Murphy, left, sacks Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald during the first half Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

The scoreboard in no way reflected defensive coordinator Bill McGovern’s first game with the Bruins.

McGovern presided over a defense that only really gave up seven points on Saturday. Stay with us here.

Bowling Green’s first touchdown came on a blocked punt. He added a field goal after UCLA’s Jake Bobo dropped a punt, giving the Falcons the ball at the Bruins 11-yard line.

Bowling Green had just one sustained shot, going 73 yards for the touchdown that gave them a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter thanks to shoddy tackles on Christian Sims’ 22-yard catch .

After that, the Falcons didn’t score again. They finished the game with just 162 yards of offense against a defense that did some creative things, including using linebackers Carl Jones and Laiatu Latu alongside rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy as the defensive line on some plays.

“It was really impressive to start the season,” Kelly said of his defense, “and hopefully we can build on that.”

The special teams were terrible

Bowling Green's PaSean Wimberly blocks a kick from kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira.

Bowling Green’s PaSean Wimberly, below, blocks a kick from UCLA kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira during the first half Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Bowling Green linebacker Charles Rosser, right, made the blocked punt for a touchdown. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Anyone can drop a punt, like Bobo did after calling for a good hold in the first quarter, but it took time for what happened the first time he ran on the field to return a punt.

The Bruins were forced to call a timeout after realizing Bobo wasn’t the only player to wear No. 9 as part of their punt return unit. Choe Bryant-Strother also wore the number, causing the game to be stopped so Bobo could slip on No. 87.

Kelly said the coaches were aware of the issue before the game, which made it all the more inexplicable.

There was also the blocking failure that allowed Bowling Green’s PaSean Wimberly direct access to punter Nicholas Barr-Mira. Wimberly hit Barr-Mira before he could pull off the punt and the Falcons got the ball back for a touchdown.

Barr-Mira also missed two of his three field goal attempts in his opener after receiving a purse.

Call it ‘Refrigerator’ Mafi

UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi sprays water over his head.

UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi splashed water on his head during the second half against Bowling Green on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Maybe the Bruins need to start designing goal-line plays for Atonio Mafi.

The 340-pound offensive lineman was certainly a force in the third quarter when he picked up a fumble from Dorian Thompson-Robinson and shot seven yards, extending the ball with his hand in triumph to signal a first down.

Mafi’s weight loss journey – he’s lost 71 pounds since arriving on campus ahead of the 2018 season – has been one of the team’s most inspiring stories. He moved from the defensive line to the other side of the ball, becoming a force at guard.

Given her increased mobility to go along with her supreme power, Mafi might warrant an expanded role. Give the ball to this man.

Pass protection was missing

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs past Bowling Green defensive lineman Adrian Wilson.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, right, passes Bowling Green defensive lineman Adrian Wilson for a touchdown during the second half Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Thompson-Robinson was on the run most of the afternoon, having to throw the ball on third down instead of taking a sack to end the Bruins’ first practice.

On the first play of UCLA’s second practice, the Falcons trailed Thompson-Robinson down for a sack and a two-yard loss. He was also under heavy pressure two plays later when he slipped a tackle, rounded the sideline and cut through the field for a 68-yard touchdown run.

Thompson-Robinson said the Falcons backing deep into their zone coverage gave him plenty of room to run. But the Falcons near the line of scrimmage continually gave him trouble because UCLA’s offensive line didn’t provide adequate protection. Thompson-Robinson was only sacked twice, but that was mainly because of his nimble feet.

Kelly pointed out that his side had won more than 600 yards and said he should watch the tape to resolve any specific issues involving a line that included Raiqwon O’Neal and Garrett DiGiorgio making their debuts as starting tackles at full team time.

It is not necessary to go to the tape. This line has a few issues it needs to address.

Bring on the state of Alabama.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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