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Zach Charbonnet helps UCLA cruise past winless Colorado to improve to 4-0

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UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet carries the ball for a 13- yard second-quarter touchdown against Colorado at Folsom Field on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Boulder, Colorado.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet (24) carries the ball for a 13-yard second-quarter touchdown against Colorado at Folsom Field on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Boulder, Colorado. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images/TNS)

BOULDER, Colo. — Nearly a month into the season, UCLA’s toughest opponent continues to be the UC regents.

Colorado showed some early spunk Saturday before quickly folding, the winless Buffaloes unlike that governing board that remains poised to threaten the Bruins’ move to the Big Ten Conference.

UCLA was so comfortably ahead on the way to its 45-17 victory that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson exited with six minutes left … in the third quarter. Buffaloes fans had departed Folsom Field in droves by then, some possibly refusing to return until a new coach paces their sideline.

Meanwhile, UCLA fans would be forgiven for wondering about the significance of their team’s first 4-0 start since 2015. The Bruins have beaten Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama in addition to what might go down as one of the worst teams in Colorado’s 132 years of football.

The Buffaloes were outmanned, outmaneuvered and outsmarted in falling to 0-4. The Bruins sped their way to the blowout, gaining large chunks of yardage in what seemed like a snap of the fingers. Their first touchdown drive went 64 yards in 2 minutes, 37 seconds. Their second went 95 yards in 1:46. Their third went 75 yards in 3:12.

By then, UCLA was up 21-3 and the only thing left to determine was the extent of the carnage during its first victory here since 2014.

“Tempo was a big part of our game plan,” said UCLA wide receiver Matt Sykes, whose 24-yard touchdown catch on his team’s opening drive was the first score of his career.

The primary beneficiaries of the need for speed were Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet, who roamed as freely as Ralphie VI, the Buffaloes’ live mascot. Thompson-Robinson completed 19 of 23 passes (82.6%) for 234 yards and two touchdowns while also repeatedly burning the Buffaloes on read-option runs that netted 56 yards in seven carries.

Charbonnet looked like the vintage version of himself for the first time since the season opener, juking one defender after another on the way to 104 yards and three touchdowns. In a stunning display of efficiency, he averaged 11.6 yards in his nine carries.

“The Zach that you saw today,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, “is the Zach that we’ve seen for a long time.”

Defensively, it was the latest stop on the Laiatu Latu Comeback Tour. UCLA’s transfer linebacker who medically retired while at Washington in the spring of 2021 notched a career-high three sacks and forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Bo Calvert. The Bruins badly needed the lift after edge rusher Gabriel Murphy was ejected in the first quarter for targeting.

UCLA’s defense was hardly perfect. Cornerback Devin Kirkwood got burned on a 42-yard completion. Two roughing-the-passer penalties extended drives, one going for a Colorado touchdown. Averaging just 14 first downs per game before Saturday, the Buffaloes had 11 by halftime.

But a predictable thing happened in the second half: UCLA dominated. The Bruins outscored the Buffaloes 24-7 and have overwhelmed their opponents by a 78-21 margin after halftime this season.

There was some awkwardness before the game when Colorado fan selfies were shown on the videoboard, a few including smiling faces as well as the hashtag #firedorrell.

The perpetually conservative coach showed some swagger on his team’s opening drive in going for it on fourth-and-1 at the UCLA 41-yard line. The Buffaloes converted, running back Charlie Offerdahl gaining two yards, but were eventually held scoreless when they missed a 54-yard field-goal try.

The beleaguered Dorrell also displayed some bravado — or desperation, take your pick — in starting freshman quarterback Owen McCown, the team’s third starter at the position in four games. The son of former NFL quarterback Josh McCown, Owen showed promise as well as inexperience in completing 26 of 42 passes for 258 yards and one touchdown with one interception.

Thompson-Robinson got to spend the final quarter-plus resting for his team’s first real test of the season, Friday at the Rose Bowl against No. 18 Washington. The Bruins might be the only team in the nation fighting for respect despite seven consecutive victories going back to last season.

They’re only days away from showing whether they deserve it.

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