Q&A: Daily Bruin sports editor discusses UCLA’s chances this weekend

As USC and UCLA face off with a Pac-12 Championship berth on the line, Daily Trojan sports editor Patrick Warren asks Daily Bruin sports editor Sam Settleman about UCLA’s season.

DT: What has the atmosphere been like at games? I haven’t been able to go to the Rose Bowl yet this season. And obviously there’s kind of been that narrative about, you know, the like attendance and everything. What does that look like in person?

DB: I think it looks as bad as people are making it seem like because I mean, I know The New York Times ran a recent article on the attendance woes that you say have faced the Rose Bowl this year. And that was kind of a narrative that had been pretty strong throughout much of the early games of the season. It kind of died off a little bit, not for much reason, just because UCLA had a couple games on the road and you know, the team’s winning and that masks all of the other conversation surrounding the team. But I mean, early in the season, you get those games against Bowling Green, South Alabama, Alabama State at home and 100 degree heat in August and September… Nobody’s really showing up to those games and you can’t fault them for that. 

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’re not really even cracking 50,000 fans in the stadium, and that’s a pretty big disappointment. I think this is maybe the one week [wherein] that’s not really going to be the prevailing narrative, as the stands are going to be full for USC, whether that’s USC fans filling them or UCLA fans or a combination of both. So, the Rose Bowl is going to look a lot different on Saturday than it has all year. 

But yeah, that atmosphere is certainly not what it used to be even five, six years ago when Tim Moore was here and they were averaging 70,000 fans a game. And even last year, the LSU game, they got to, I think 67,000 and that atmosphere, I mean, I was in the press box for that one, that atmosphere felt totally different than any game this year has. Even when you are beating ranked teams like Washington and Utah at home, it’s a lot different when there are 45,000 people there versus, you know, 70,000 at the Rose Bowl.

DT: Talk about what, two or three months ago, your expectations were for this UCLA team and how they’ve held up as the season has gone by.

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, you know, early going into the Chip Kelly days, that was kind of out of the question; they were losing a lot of football games. It kind of showed in that [coronavirus] year that they were ready to take the next step. And they did that last year with an 8-4 record, but it wasn’t anything super impressive. I think the LSU win was probably the hallmark of that season, and that didn’t end up being much of a big win in retrospect anyway.

If you look at the schedule and it’s got 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 was maybe the expectation just based on their schedule alone… Throughout the year, it really hasn’t changed a whole lot — I still remember the first game of the season against Bowling Green, they got a three-and-out on the first drive and got their punt blocked and returned for a touchdown and then you’re like, ‘Okay, this team isn’t going to go to 9-3 like we all thought.’ I think once they actually start winning those games that they’re expected to win, maybe you get ahead of yourself and you think, ‘Oh, this team maybe can compete 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 be far exceeding any expectations I had coming into this year.

DT:A big part of those 9 or 10 wins is [quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson] , obviously. He’s a senior and he’s been there for a long time versus having this young guy in Caleb Williams; what does DTR’s leadership bring to the team as far as you can tell?

DB: I think this is probably true moreso a couple of weeks ago than it has been the last couple of weeks, but you can tell that when DTR’s playing at his best, making those highlight reel plays, when he feels confident and he’s firing up the team, it makes such a difference for that whole team and that whole offense. They really go as DTR goes for the most part, and when he’s having a game to forget and he’s missing a couple throws here and there, the offense starts to die down a little bit.

[But it’s] not only his ability on the field, but like you said, his leadership in his fifth year. He’s been in this offense for as long as anyone. Just the camaraderie with Chip and just having that relationship makes this offense kind of — I would say unstoppable, but they looked stoppable against Arizona — but for most part all year they’ve been unstoppable in all phases.

A lot of that has to do with DTR like you said. I mean, you can get it done on the ground, you can get it done through the air. There’s a reason he was legitimately in the Heisman conversation a couple weeks ago. I think he’s kind of regressed a little bit over the past couple of weeks, and he’s kind of showing that maybe this offense does need to rely on his aggression game a little more than they would have hoped. But the leadership is obviously the biggest thing that he brings to the table. I don’t know if he has the ability to be an NFL quarterback or has the talent to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, but that leadership is what’s going to lead this offense to a win.

DT: On the other side of the ball, in true Pac-12 fashion the defense [has allowed] a good bit of points this season. What are some of your concerns in guarding the Trojan offense?

DB: Yeah, everything is the answer. I think everybody talked about it coming into this year. It’s always the case with UCLA, you know, it’s not if their defense is going to be good, but is the defense going to be able to do enough to let their offense win games? 

The defense was never going to win games for them. The defensive line, you had a couple of veterans there that went down early in the year with injuries, so that’s a pretty thin group as it stands right now. Linebacker depth was a question from the get go and secondary depth, I mean, I think [sophomore defensive back] Devin Kirkwood, who’s a true sophomore now, was expected to be [the lead cornerback]… He was going to be the guy on defense that you can kind of hold your hat on — and he’s missed a couple of games of late with injury, missed some time, but he hasn’t been quite the standout that UCLA expected after a pretty solid freshman campaign. 

Beyond that, they have a couple of solid players at safety, I think that’s maybe where they’re the strongest. But the defensive line looked pretty bad against Arizona, just the inability to contain [sophomore quarterback Jayden] de Laura. And I think you get a guy like Caleb Williams with that amount of talent, a guy that can make any throw on the field, you give him any time to throw the ball. And like you said, receiver depth is a strength of USC too. So the combination of where UCLA’s defensive line is at right now and where their secondary is at right now, I don’t think stopping Caleb Willams and USC’s offense is even going to be on the table. UCLA’s offense is going to have to do the job and put up 50 points probably to get a win on Saturday, and I’m sure USC’s thinking the same from their side.

DT: So USC has kind of been bit by the injury bug. I was wondering, what are some injuries that the Bruins are concerned about heading into next week? Are there any key players that are questionable?

DB: Kirkwood, like I just said, is going to be a question mark. I think that he should be back and ready to go out. And that would be a huge loss for them if they didn’t have him. Other than that, [senior running back Zach] Charbonnet missed the game against Arizona State [which was] kind of unexpected, but he’s going to be back in the fold most likely. I mean, he played against Arizona, so he should be fine. 

For the most part, they’re healthy in terms of recent injuries. The only big question mark, I would say, is [redshirt junior wide receiver] Kazmeir  Allen, who’s been like a home run hitter for this team. He’s a guy that can hit the 75 yard play on offense and get a spark going, 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 major [from what] it sounded like. But if he’s not, that’s going to be a huge loss for UCLA.

DT: I’ll end it as you end [my Q&A]. What is your score prediction?DB: I’m probably gonna change this, like, three more times throughout the week, but I’m going to go with 49-42 UCLA. I know I said UCLA needed 50 to win, but I’ll give them 49 and maybe they can get a win out of that.