Cal 2021 Football Opponent Previews: Bears Close Season vs. UCLA at the Rose Bowl

Bruins finally are showing signs of breaking through under coach Chip Kelly.
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* Last in a series of stories taking an early look at Cal's 2021 football opponents (cover photo: of Dorian Thompson-Robinson)

GAME 12: CAL AT UCLA

Date: Saturday, Nov. 27

UCLA 2020 record: 3-4/5th in Pac-12 South

Series record: UCLA leads 56-34-1. The Bruins won 34-10 last year at the Rose Bowl in a game that was scheduled less than 48 hours before kickoff after the Bears’ original opener vs. Washington was wiped out by COVID-19 issues. UCLA has won six of the past eight meetings.

Bruins coach: Chip Kelly (10-21, 4th season)

Top players: Senior QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1,120 passing yards, 65.2%, 12 TD, 4 INT; 306 rushing yards, 3 TD; second-team All-Pac-12); senior TE Greg Dulcich (26 receptions, 517 yards, 5 TD, second-team All-Pac-12); junior WR Kyle Phillips (38 receptions, 370 yards, 2 TD); senior C Sam Marrazzo; LB Caleb Johnson (44 tackles, 5.5 sacks); S Stephan Blaylock (42 tackles, 2 interceptions);

Strengths: Ten starters — including the entire offensive line — return to an offense that averaged 35 points and 455 yards per game, finally beginning to rev up in Chip Kelly’s third season. The team needs a big-time senior season from veteran QB Dorian Thomson-Robinson. He has 34 giveaways (interceptions and lost fumbles) in 24 career games. . . . Top RB Demetric Felton is gone, but Brittain Brown rushed for 543 yards on 6.6 yards per attempt and scored four touchdowns. . . . The Bruins’ defense, which also returns 10 starters, led the Pac-12 in sacks and transformed that pressure into takeaways, securing eight interceptions over the final four games.

Weaknesses: Although the Bruins’ secondary became adept at picking off passes, it also gave up too many big plays the past two seasons. That must improve, UCLA ranked last in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed (274 per game). Over the past two seasons, the Bruins were 3-13 when surrendering 230 passing yards or more.

What you should know about UCLA: The Bruins suffered their four losses last season by a total of 15 points, all of them by single digits . . . UCLA has endured five consecutive losing seasons — longest streak in program history . . . Kelly recruited five high-major transfers, including linebackers Jordan Genmark Heath (Notre Dame) and Ale Kaho (Alabama).

UCLA spring football status: The Bruins wrapped up spring ball on May 27 and their roster of 116 players emerged without any major health setbacks. . . . WR Kyle Phillips said the team has a “hungrier” attitude than in recent years and that was evidenced by the fact that players routinely stayed after spring practices, on their own, to continue working . . . Quarterback Ethan Garbers, younger brother of Cal’s Chase Garbers, transferred to UCLA from Washington, although the Huskies have not given the Bruins permission to make Garbers eligible in 2021 . . . Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet impressed coaches and teammates during spring ball and figures to be in the running back rotation next fall. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019 but carried the ball just 19 times last fall as the Wolverines used a four-back rotation.

UCLA 2021 season projection: The Bruins, winless in six non-conference games under Chip Kelly, take on LSU on Sept. 4 at home — the first-ever meeting between the schools. The Tigers won the 2019 national championship, then were 5-5 last season. The Pac-12 schedule includes road games vs. Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC. On the other hand, the Bruins don’t leave California until Oregon and don’t have to trek outside the L.A. area in November. If the offense continues to blossom and the back end of the defense tightens up the Bruins should challenge for the upper division of the Pac-12 South.

Cal-UCLA game prediction: Cal 27, UCLA 24

Cover photo of Cal linebacker Cameron Goode tackling UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo