Evidence from the UCLA debacle at Alabama State

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers filled in for Dorian Thompson-Robinson to lead the team to a victory against Alabama State in the Rose Bowl on Saturday. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

UCLA had two blocks en route to a supposed 3-0 start against the nonconference cupcakes.

Clean up any problem areas.

Avoid injuries.

Through the first two weeks of the season, the Bruins have gone one for two.

The special teams mishaps that plagued them in the opener against Bowling Green were a non-issue Saturday in the Rose Bowl during a 45-7 rout of Alabama State. But quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson went down with an apparent ankle injury and never returned, and Zach Charbonnet did not play for undisclosed reasons, leaving their status in question for UCLA’s final non-conference game against South Alabama next weekend .

Here are five takeaways from the game:

Was he hurt… or not?

Dorian Thomson-Robinson sits on the bench.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson sits on the bench during the second half against Alabama State on Saturday in the Rose Bowl. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

Let the conspiracy theories begin.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly acted like he was running an undercover operation, not a college football team, when asked about the status of Charbonnet and Thompson-Robinson after the game.

Reporter: “Can you tell us what happened to Jacques and Dorian?”

Kelly: “Yeah, they were both unavailable.”

Reporter: “Injuries?”

Kelly: “Unavailable.”

Kelly’s non-updates, particularly when it came to Charbonnet, were par for the course for the coach who has used “unavailable” as a catch-all for anyone who hasn’t played since the onset of COVID-19. A player could be dealing with injuries, legal issues, academics, COVID-19 or a head cold, and Kelly would just say they weren’t available.

Charbonnet was in uniform for the game and appeared to be moving unrestricted on the sideline, leading to speculation that he might have faced a Football Championship Subdivision opponent due to load management.

Thanks to Kelly’s secrecy, fans may never know.

Kelly remained tight-lipped when asked about Charbonnet’s availability for next week.

“I’m not a prognosticator, and if I was, I’d be at Del Mar tomorrow making a lot of cash,” Kelly said, “so we’ll take it as it comes.”

Depth charge

UCLA's Christian Grubb hangs onto the ball as the other players pile up.

UCLA’s Christian Grubb (32) scrambles for a seven-yard run in the fourth quarter against Alabama State in the Rose Bowl on Saturday. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Charbonnet’s mysterious absence meant the Bruins were going to learn a lot about the quality of their backup running backs.

What they discovered made them feel much better about their depth should Charbonnet lose any more games. True freshman TJ Harden led the way with 56 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while junior Christian Grubb had nearly the same 55 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.

Redshirt junior Colson Yankoff made the most of his second-down switch, gaining 35 yards on six carries, and redshirt freshman Deshun Murrell had 34 yards on his first six carries as a Bruin.

Junior Keegan Jones, who took over Charbonnet’s starting role, had 33 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries while also making four catches for 31 yards.

Especially once again

Nicholas Barr-Mira punts for UCLA.

UCLA punter Nicholas Barr-Mira made his only field goal in UCLA’s win over Alabama State on Saturday. (Kyusung Gong/Associated Press)

A week after a terrible performance, UCLA’s special teams were perfect.

Nicolas Bar-Mira made his only field goal attempt, from 19 yards, after missing two of three attempts last week.

Barr-Mira and Chase Barry averaged 37.3 yards on their three punts, but had no punt blocks and Alabama State produced zero punt return yards.

Logan Loya, making his season debut, showed reliable hands replacing Jake Bobo as the punt returner, gaining two yards on his one return.

Special teams are often better when they go unnoticed, as was the case on Saturday.

The secondary becomes a focal point

UCLA defensive end Gabriel Murphy pressures Alabama State quarterback Myles Crowley.

UCLA defensive end Gabriel Murphy pressures Alabama State quarterback Myles Crawley, which eventually leads to a touchdown in the first quarter of Saturday’s Rose Bowl. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Alabama State moved the ball with regularity, especially in the first half.

Most of the Hornets’ early success came through the air, with quarterback Myles Crawley finding open receivers. Midway through the second quarter, Alabama State’s 177 yards of offense surpassed the 162 yards Bowling Green had generated for the entire game the previous week.

But the Bruins’ pass defense stiffened in the second half, intercepting two passes and holding the Hornets to 46 passing yards after giving up 177 in the first half.

“Thankfully, we held them to seven points,” Kelly said. “We got a few body shots there, but we made sure that when we needed it, we did it. There are some things, obviously, like anything you need to clean.’

Oh, bro

Grayson Murphy and Gabriel Murphy walk happily on the field.

UCLA linebacker Grayson Murphy (12) and defensive end Gabriel Murphy (11) celebrate after a sack during the first half against Alabama State in the Rose Bowl on Saturday. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

UCLA forward Gabriel Murphy scooped up the ball after teammate Laiatu Latu had forced a fumble on the Alabama State quarterback. As Murphy was about to throw himself to the ground, he heard a familiar voice.

“I was like, ‘Gabriel, Gabriel!’ ” said Grayson Murphy, his twin brother, “and he kind of threw it at me.”

Grayson took the desperation field and ran for a touchdown. Except there was a problem. Gabriel’s pitch was an illegal forward pass, leading to a penalty.

All was forgiven on the next play when Thompson-Robinson connected with Hudson Habermehl for a 25-yard reception. A few hours later, the brothers could laugh about the accident.

“I wish he would have caught it and thrown it back,” Grayson Murphy said, “so we could have kept the touchdown.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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