The UCLA offense may be explosive, but it’s not quite as fast as Tennessee’s.
UCLA is ninth in points per game and third in total offense (fourth in rushing), but it’s not the tempo that worries Pat Narduzzi. When Pitt practiced before Tennesse came to town, the goal in practice was to get plays off in about 10 seconds to simulate tempo.
Narduzzi said Thursday that UCLA will look to get plays off in about 23 seconds. Of course, as plays work, the tempo will follow. And plays that work will be seen again.
It also helps that UCLA’s entire offense will be playing Friday against Pitt. It’s a rarity in today’s college football, but Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Zach Charbonnet and Jake Bobo will all be in the lineup against Pitt.
“We gotta do a great job of stopping their quarterback, who is a tremendous player, a fifth-year senior,” Randy Bates said Tuesday in El Paso. “And they have a great running back also, so they have one of the premier running offenses in the country. So, I believe we have to stop the run, and that’s what we try to do at Pitt.”
Thompson-Robinson was an early leader in the 2022 Heisman race after guiding the Bruins to a 6-0 record before the bye week, racking up 2,883 yards and 25 touchdowns through the air and 631 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Despite seemingly stellar stats through the air (25-7 touchdown to interception ratio and 69% completion percentage), Thompson-Robinson gambled in 2022.
With 17 turnover-worthy plays to just eight big-time throws, according to Pro Football Focus, his style of play leads to chances where opponents can capitalize on mistakes.
And with just under 11% of all pressures turning into sacks, being sacked on just 15 of 137 drop backs, the UCLA offensive line did a good job keeping DTR clean.
“He’s a tremendous thrower, and he also creates on passes with his feet,” Bates said. “I think he’s a good runner and they have some run plays, but I think he is a game-breaker on basically broken plays. Where you’re trying to sack him, and he breaks free, and you can’t cover everybody and stop him at all times.”
The goal for Pitt’s defense will be to keep Thompson-Robinson in the pocket.
Thompson-Robinson hasn’t been a major deep ball threat this season, completing just 11-of-35 attempts (31.4%) over 20 yards downfield for 393 yards. In fact, a majority of his damage comes on passes within 10 yards or behind the line of scrimmage:
199-of-239 (83.2%) for 1,811 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.
However, it’s not the passing game that UCLA is known for; it’s the rushing attack. And former Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet was one of the best running backs in college football this season.
In 10 games, he’s run for 1,358 yards and 14 touchdowns (adding 321 yards on 37 receptions) to fuel the high-powered UCLA offense. And it comes in a hard-nosed, heavy-hitting style.
Charbonnet averages 7.0 yards per carry, and he’s one of the nation’s leaders in yards after contact — 806 yards after contact and 4.15 yards after contact per attempt. And that ability to withstand contact leads to one of the most explosive runners in the country.
Charbonnet ranked in the top five in college football in rush attempts of at least 10 yards (44) and at least 15 yards (24).
Thompson-Robinson, with 65 designed rush attempts and 44 scrambles, was UCLA’s second-leading rusher in 2022. He made forced 22 missed tackles, hit 25 runs of at least 10 yards and four runs of at least 15 yards.
“They got one of the best rush attacks in the country, and we’ve got one of the best run defenses in the country,” Pat Narduzzi said Thursday in El Paso. “We’re pretty much built for stopping the run, so this will be a battle of the run game for sure.”
It will be a tougher task to stop the run though, as Pitt will be without Calijah Kancey, SirVocea Dennis, Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan and Brandon Hill (and Habakkuk Baldonado questionable).
Bates said that while it’s tough to replace an All-American, and a few All-ACC honorees, the defense has strived to achieve its goals this season despite injuries sustained. Despite the losses, Narduzzi said, he’s confident his team will fulfill its responsibilities.
“The nice thing for us on defense is we rotate a lot of players, so Calijah wasn’t the only starter that we have, and we have a lot of kids who have started a lot of games,” Bates said. “A lot of depth there but certainly he is a tremendous loss.”
Pitt will be forced to supplement from within, players like Dayon Hayes, David Green, Shayne Simon, Erick Hallett and Marquis Williams stepping up from the ranks of the consistent contributors, but the youthful injection of talent begins now.
Samuel Okunlola on the defensive line, Solomon DeShields amongst the linebackers and Javon McIntyre in the secondary.
Of all the games Pitt played this season, if there’s a team that Bates is able to compare UCLA to, it’s Louisville. A night in Louisville when Pitt let a winnable game slip away against Malik Cunningham’s Cardinals. Bates sees some of Cunningham in Thompson-Robinson.
But unfortunately for Pitt, Louisville didn’t have a weapon at its disposal like Charbonnet.