Dante Moore was done. Then he was back. Finally, he was finished.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly wasn’t playing peekaboo with his star quarterback, just girding him for tougher challenges ahead.
The true freshman played the first three drives against North Carolina Central on Saturday, departed with his team holding a 21-0 lead and then reappeared for one final drive after backup Collin Schlee had helped the Bruins tack on 14 more points.
What was Kelly thinking in wanting more from Moore?
“That we needed to get Dante more reps,” Kelly said after the No. 24 Bruins’ 59-7 pummeling of the Eagles was complete.
In other words, you can’t bloom at the Rose Bowl without going through proper bud break. Kelly wanted Moore to get as much seasoning as possible heading into a Pac-12 showdown next weekend against No. 12 Utah, the two-time defending conference champion.
Moore was close to flawless in his four drives, completing eight of 12 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
Here are five takeaways from UCLA’s rout of the Eagles:
He’ll be a fresh freshman
With the Bruins (3-0) using the season opener for a quarterback competition and winning their next two games in blowout fashion, Moore has roughly 1½ games of playing time.
He’ll be fresh for the Utes (3-0) at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but he’ll also have far fewer repetitions than he would have had Kelly anointed him the starter before the season.
Moore has looked like a veteran against relatively underwhelming competition, completing 62.8% of his passes for 615 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.
Sustaining that success against Utah would be something else entirely, especially at a place where the Bruins haven’t won since 2015.
“We're pleased with where we are right now,” Kelly said, “but we know we have to continue to progress.”
More FCS fun
For those whining that the game was over once UCLA scored twice in the first 74 seconds, leading to a dreadfully dull afternoon, a reminder might be in order.
The Bruins were supposed to play Michigan before the Wolverines backed out of a planned two-game series, forcing UCLA to scramble to find replacement opponents on short notice.
Pivoting to Alabama State and North Carolina Central resulted in the first two Football Championship Subdivision opponents the Bruins have played in 104 years of football. UCLA won the games by a combined score of 104-14, uncovering some new heroes along the way.
Against the Eagles, linebacker Donavyn Pellot got the first sack of his career. Quarterback Justyn Martin took his first snaps. Running backs Troy Leigber, Josiah Gonzales, Brian Kowall, Isaiah Carlson and Minaya Oliva got their first carries. Defensive lineman Dovid Magna picked up his first fumble recovery.
Seventy-nine UCLA players logged playing time, including offensive lineman Siale Taupaki in his first game back from a lengthy injury layoff.
“It’s awesome to see those guys’ faces,” Kelly said, “that they worked so hard during the week that … it pays off for them, they get to play on Saturday.”
Another offensive weapon
UCLA has repeatedly broken out the T formation, with good reason: There’s three sturdy running backs on the roster.
After Carson Steele and T.J. Harden got the bulk of the carries during the season’s first two weeks, it was Anthony Adkins’ turn to show off his moves against the Eagles. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound transfer from Army displayed speed and toughness in running for a game-high 96 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries.
“I’m not sure we knew how athletic he was when we got him, obviously played a different style of offense at Army,” Kelly said. “He was the fullback in the wishbone, just pounding it between the A gaps. But he’s got a little bit of side to side to him. I think he’s tough to tackle, runs with good body, lean.”
After Adkins referenced his having slimmed down upon arriving in Westwood, he received some spontaneous praise from Moore.
“One more thing,” Moore told reporters after they had finished with their questions. “Shout out to Ant. One thing he brought up was his weight. I know with Ant, he's not a selfish person. I mean, he really takes care of his body. I remember sometimes I'd come offer him candy in the locker room. He would just say, 'Nah, I'm watching my weight.' So, one thing Ant does is take care of his body and really improves on the football field.”
Looking at his Adkins, Moore added: “Keep doing your thing, bro, and I love you, brother."
Replied Adkins: "Love you, too. I appreciate that.”
The ‘D’ keeps it up
Of course, those Bruins also went on to lose their next five games.
But there’s strong indications that the current defense is legitimate. With its two takeaways Saturday, the Bruins have forced eight turnovers in three games while piling up 27 tackles for loss.
NCCU’s only points Saturday came against reserves.
“Because of what happened on the offensive side of the ball, some of those guys didn't play as much as they normally do, [Laiatu] Latu and Darius [Muasau] and those guys, just because we jumped to such a big lead early,” Kelly said. “But when they were in there, obviously, we have a front that can cause some problems.”
Here comes the gantlet
The gimmes are over. With the Pac-12 off to a scorching start in its final season, the Bruins could face three consecutive ranked opponents starting next weekend in Salt Lake City.
After a week off, UCLA will play No. 23 Washington State on Oct. 7 at the Rose Bowl before traveling to face No. 16 Oregon State on Oct. 14 at Reser Stadium for the Bruins’ first trip to Corvallis since 2015. Later in the season, UCLA will face Colorado and USC, which are also ranked.
“There's eight teams in the Pac-12 that are in the top 25 in the country,” Kelly said. “So this conference play for everybody is going to be a battle.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.