It was the sort of mismatch where UCLA’s backups figured to play.
Just not before halftime.
If one looked solely at the final score — UCLA 45, Alabama State 7 — they might have thought the Bruins’ first game against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in their 103-year history went according to script.
Not so much.
UCLA’s primary protagonists Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl included some unexpected names because of a few notable absences.
Star running back Zach Charbonnet did not play for undisclosed reasons, giving Keegan Jones the starting nod. Veteran quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson left early in the second quarter with an apparent ankle injury, forcing Ethan Garbers into the game.
The second-stringers were mostly first-rate.
Jones logged the Bruins’ opening points, keeping his legs churning on a two-yard touchdown run. Garbers completed 11 of his first 12 passes. Running backs T.J. Harden, Christian Grubb and Colson Yankoff showed some durability as UCLA relied heavily on its ground game in the second half.
With the Bruins (2-0) comfortably on their way to a fifth consecutive victory going back to last season — their longest stretch of sustained success under coach Chip Kelly — the game’s final 20 minutes belonged to third- and fourth-stringers.
“Being able to share the love, I think, was the best thing about today,” UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert said. “Just being able to see guys come in that aren’t able to be in the spotlight as much, to be able to see those guys make plays was awesome.”
In another twist, it was a rout filled with comeback stories.
There was Laiatu Latu, the UCLA linebacker who logged two sacks and forced a fumble in only his second game after a medical retirement in the spring of 2021 because of a neck injury while playing for Washington.
“To bounce back from that and deal with such a serious injury, something that obviously sets your life and spins you 180 (degrees), and then be able to just keep working every day and find the path, find your way and now he’s playing at UCLA and making tons of plays,” Calvert said, “ … I’m so happy to see him making plays out there again.”
There was Yankoff, the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-running back whose career had been beset by a foot injury, tallying 35 yards in six carries, including an impressive 19-yard run in which he put his 230 pounds to good use by bowling over defenders.
“I have seen Colson come a long way with these injuries, switching positions,” Bruins tight end Hudson Habermehl said, “so it’s really cool to see him get in there and really make some big plays.”
Finally, there was Grubb, the redshirt junior who had toiled in anonymity while recovering from a torn Achilles and being buried on the depth chart, bursting ahead for 55 yards in his first seven carries as a Bruin.
“It was good to see the Grubber get out there and do some things,” Kelly said.
UCLA’s ground game, which had largely been a one-man show with Charbonnet in the opener, tallied 220 yards and five touchdowns. Harden, a true freshman, ran for 56 yards and a touchdown, yielding a robust eight yards per carry. Jones was a two-way threat, running for 33 yards and hauling in four catches for 31 yards.
Kelly would not comment on the statuses of Charbonnet or Thompson-Robinson after the game, saying only they were both “unavailable.”
Thompson-Robinson completed nine of 11 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown on a 25-yard pass to Habermehl before his departure early in the second quarter. Facing heavy pressure on third and 11, Thompson-Robinson appeared to hurt himself on a play in which he flipped the ball to Jones for an 18-yard gain.
There was little drop-off with Garbers, who ran for two touchdowns and completed 14 of 18 passes for 164 yards. His only misstep came on an unsightly interception at the Alabama State goal line.
“You know, he’s going to want that one back,” Kelly said.
Alabama State (2-1) won decisively in one department — the battle of the bands. The high-stepping, slippery moves and perfect choreography of the Mighty Marching Hornets elicited a standing ovation from the crowd of 33,727 that was noticeably bigger than the record low UCLA had drawn in its opener last week in unbearable heat.
The Hornets found some success moving the ball, generating 310 yards of offense, but committed three turnovers. UCLA defensive backs Jaylin Davies and D.J. Justice each had an interception, Justice’s going for a touchback and saving a possible touchdown.
Davies, a transfer from Oregon, figures to be in for some ribbing this week after he ran back his interception 46 yards but was brought down in the open field by Keeundra Salter, Alabama State’s 305-pound offensive tackle.
“He’s got to make that cut inside,” Calvert said of his teammate with a smile. “That’s just one-on-one with a tackle, I mean you got to get a little bit of jukes in there.”
The Bruins made the moves they needed to against 481/2-point underdogs, sidestepping drama amid unexpected setbacks.
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