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2021 Holiday Bowl preview: UCLA’s offense will give NC State all it can handle

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The Bruins have one of the better offenses State will have seen this year.

NCAA Football: Colorado at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

When Chip Kelly got his first college head coaching job, there was no rebuilding to do, no necessary legwork to get the program or recruits to buy in. That’s because Kelly took over at Oregon after the Ducks had already been established as a major power—he just had to keep that thing rolling, which he did.

Circumstances were just a bit different when he took over at UCLA, as the Bruins were coming off back-to-back losing seasons. The losing seasons continued under Kelly: the Bruins finished 3-9 his first year, 4-8 his second, and 3-4 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He’s gotten a breakthrough year out of his program in 2021, though the signs of progress were evident the year prior, as all four of UCLA’s losses came by one possession.

The primary reason for UCLA’s climb back to respectability is the offense; after averaging a meager 5.3 yards per play in 2019, that figure jumped to 6.1 last year, then to 6.2 this fall. The Bruins have a good, veteran quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but they like to run the ball a lot, and their ability to start controlling games with the run has become a huge strength.

UCLA comes into the Holiday Bowl averaging 215 rushing yards per game on about 45 carries per game. The Bruins have scored 31 touchdowns on the ground (NC State has 11 rushing TDs and have rushed for at least 200 yards in all eight wins. (Coincidentally—or not—they failed to crack 200 yards in all four losses, though they got super close in one of them.)

The Bruins’ offense ended the regular season on a roll: 244 yards rushing on 6.0 per carry against Colorado, 260 on 5.9 against USC, and 282 on 6.4 against Cal. They scored at least 42 points in all three.

Thompson-Robinson is an impact player with his legs and he’s a good decision-maker when he throws the ball, which forces defenses to think about a lot of different things over the course of a game. He’s completed 62.2% of his throws with 21 TDs against six INTs. He also averages 4.7 yards per carry and sits third on the team with 609 rushing yards. He has nine rushing scores.

Leading the way on the ground is Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet, who went from finding little playing time at Michigan in 2020 to running for over 1,100 yards for the Bruins in 2021. He has seven 100-yard games this season.

UCLA’s biggest contributor through the air is wide receiver Kyle Philips, who leads the team in receptions (59), receiving yards (739), and receiving touchdowns (10). The Bruins also feature a standout tight end in Greg Dulcich, who averaged more than 17 yards per catch during the regular season. The Mackey Award semifinalist will be a major concern for NC State’s defense; you can imagine how the tight end might get loose in an offense like this one.

This UCLA offense ranks 14th in SP+, while NC State’s defense ranks ... 14th in SP+. It’s a strength-against-strength matchup that figures to be a fun one to watch. It’s also a reason why the line on this game has been so tight: NC State is still a one-point favorite, according to DraftKings*, same as when the line opened.

The Wolfpack’s ability to thwart UCLA’s rushing attack, or its lack thereof, could easily decide this game. The other side of the ball will have a little something to say about it, but I’ll get to that later.

*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.