May 24, 2024

Oh, brother. Another quarterback Ethan Garbers would have to contend with at the Rose Bowl.

This one happened to be his biggest supporter, not that having the same last name would keep Chase Garbers from sharing any critiques.

“He was just kind of saying when I run that I need to get down a little bit more,” Ethan said of the brotherly advice after the younger sibling guided UCLA to a convincing victory over Colorado last weekend.

So, in other words, slide?

“Yeah,” Ethan said two days after running a season-high nine times and absorbing several vicious hits. “It was funny, though. He said, ‘Are you trying to break my rushing records?’ and I was like, ‘Man, that’s crazy.’ ”

Chase Garbers holds school records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback at California. His little brother, who liked to live in the pocket, never really reminded Chase of himself before these last few weeks, when Ethan sprinted downfield whenever the protection faltered or the receivers couldn’t get open.

All that maneuvering has symbolized Ethan’s midseason emergence. After several years of a career in standstill, he’s taking off and running with the Bruins’ starting quarterback job.

Anointed the starter before the season, Garbers kept the job for just one game before ceding it to true freshman Dante Moore, a former five-star high school prospect. Five games later, after some predictable struggles from his young teammate, Garbers got the job back.

He’s gone on to play the best football of his college career, the redshirt junior leading the No. 19 Bruins (6-2 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) to back-to-back victories heading into a Saturday showdown in the desert against Arizona (5-3, 3-2).

“It says a lot about Ethan as a person, his resiliency, his ability to stick to what he does,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “He never wavered in practice, never wavered in meetings, he was always competing like he was the starting quarterback, and when his opportunity came I think has done a great job.”

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UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers scrambles for a first down in the first half against Colorado.

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Pasadena, CA - UCLA quarterback Ethan Garber throws downfield against Colorado.

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Pasadena, CA - UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers scrambles for a first down against Colorado.

1. UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers scrambles for a first down in the first half of the Bruins’ win over Colorado at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 28. 2. Ethan Garbers throws against Colorado in the third quarter. 3. Ethan Garbers scrambles for a first down against Colorado. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In his last two games, Garbers has completed 40 of 55 passes (72.7%) for 509 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. That exceptional efficiency, combined with UCLA’s elite defense and a steady rushing attack, has become a winning formula.

Garbers’ steadying presence extends to the way he runs the huddle after remembering predecessor Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s advice to take three deep breaths, look around and lock in before every drive as a sort of mini-meditation.

“He’s calm,” running back T.J. Harden said, “and if the quarterback is calm, then it keeps the whole offense calm.”

It’s fair to point out that Garbers has not faced a challenge like the one that will confront him Saturday. Arizona’s pass defense is ranked No. 6 in the Pac-12, several notches above the Stanford and Colorado pass defenses that are the worst two in the conference.

Then again, a solid secondary is nothing compared to what Garbers has already overcome. Having led Corona del Mar High to a state title, he signed up to play for a Washington coaching staff that was mostly gone before his first spring practice upon the retirement of Chris Petersen. His freshman season was essentially wiped out by COVID-19. He transferred to UCLA, only for Thompson-Robinson to stay an extra season and prolong Garbers’ status as a backup.

Having won the starting job during a spirited battle in preseason camp, Garbers lost it after a season opener in which he put up slightly worse numbers than Moore. Back to the bench Garbers went, not knowing if it would become a permanent destination.

“I think he didn’t understand why, you know, what he did wrong, and I think that added to some frustration,” said Grant Garbers, Ethan’s father, “but it’s a competitive world and you can only control what you can control. The message from us [as a family] was just keep working and good things will happen.”

Trusting his family had never let Ethan down before. His father, a former high school quarterback who played golf at the University of Georgia, steered Ethan toward playing quarterback while coaching his youth teams. His love for the position was enhanced by watching Chase, older by three years, thrive as the first Corona del Mar quarterback widely recruited by major college teams.

Ethan Garbers, left, and his older brother Chase at Corona del Mar.

Ethan Garbers, left, and his older brother Chase at Corona del Mar. Chase isn’t the only one in the Garbers family passing along quarterback knowledge to Ethan.

(Courtesy of the Garbers family)

Ethan got a closeup look at the speed and toughness it took to win in high school while serving as the Sea Kings’ ball boy during Chase’s sophomore and junior seasons.

“He was always standing right next to me or kind of near and then obviously when our offense was out there he was watching and kind of doing his ball boy duties,” Chase said, “but when the defense was on the field and I was on the sideline he was always there and we would always kind of chat about what was going on.”

The brothers overlapped for one year of high school, Ethan getting called up to the varsity team as a freshman during Chase’s senior season. That allowed them to continue their lifelong battle to see who could throw the tighter spiral, put more distance on the ball or display the quicker footwork.

Chase had to persevere through his own setbacks after going on to Cal, getting benched as a redshirt freshman before winning the starting job anew. Ethan lost his chance to become Corona del Mar’s starter as a sophomore before leading the Sea Kings to a league title as a junior and a state title as a senior.

Along the way, the brothers usually talked multiple times per week, celebrating each other’s triumphs and propping the other up after a tough loss. Chase’s Cal teammates gathered around him in the locker room to watch on television as Ethan rallied the Bruins on a late drive against Oregon in 2021 as an injury replacement for Thompson-Robinson. Ethan completed a fourth-down pass, sustaining the drive, before a final pass was intercepted.

It was a similar happy-turned-sad story in the Sun Bowl last December. Ethan led a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minute before Pittsburgh kicked a field goal to crush UCLA’s comeback hopes.

Big brother told him to always stay ready, that his moment could come at any time. When Ethan had that moment snatched away after starting the opener, he was predictably crushed.

“I was just kind of at a low point and didn’t really know what my future held and so that was a tough spot,” Ethan said, “but ultimately those tough situations make you stronger in the long run and I think it’s shown and I think it’s going to continue to show that it’s made me a better quarterback and a better person.”

Finding solace in his friends on the team, Ethan forged ahead while also keeping his brother’s advice in mind when he got his next start. After watching Ethan get sacked against Coastal Carolina, Chase told him that he could have tucked the ball and run to salvage those plays.

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers passes during a win over Coastal Carolina at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers passes during a win over Coastal Carolina at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 2.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

That’s exactly what he did against Stanford, repeatedly taking off while gaining 51 yards in eight carries. It was more of the same last weekend against Colorado with Chase watching his brother play in person for the first time in college after having been waived by the Las Vegas Raiders at the end of training camp.

“It definitely stresses the defense,” Chase said of his brother’s running. “It’s great to see him add that part of his game to the game plan and definitely help out the team for sure.”

Does Chase still think he’s the faster of the two?

“Yes,” he said, “and don’t let him tell otherwise.”

There’s something else that’s not up for debate, according to the older brother: Ethan needs to slide more.

“He still thinks he can take on all these Division I college athletes head-on and sooner or later, he’ll realize he’s not playing running back,” Chase said, “so he’ll have to get out of the way of some people.”

That is, if they can catch the quarterback who suddenly seems to be running away with every race.

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