This is not what anyone imagined the start of the Chip Kelly at UCLA would look like. The 14-point favorite Bruins could not stop runs up the middle, made some critical late-game errors, and UCLA was not offensive enough. All of that resulted in a 26-17 loss to Cincinnati at the Rose Bowl Saturday night.
UCLA Not Offensive Enough In Loss
As advertised Kelly brought a much faster pace with him to Westwood. The Bruins broke out the new, more aggressive style against the Bearcats. The thing is, it was the defense that was fast and edgy, not the offense as had been anticipated.
Graduate transfer Wilton Speight started at quarterback as announced by Kelly. There were two false starts in the first four plays. The Bruins got all of six yards rushing on three attempts, prior to freshman Kazmeir Allen ripping off a 23-yard run. The effort to speed up the pace of the offense was there, but the results were negligible. And, it was out of a pro-style, shotgun formation, not the sprint out, throw on-the-run scheme they spent the Spring developing. Kelly had made it clear as recently as this week, he was ready to go with whatever was going to get the win, even if it meant changing to offense to accommodate that quarterback. Speight was a pedestrian seven of 10 for 41 yards in the first quarter.
The Bruins got a short field thanks to that defensive pressure and a fumble recovery by Keisean Lucier-South deep in Cincinnati territory that led to a one-yard touchdown run by Bolu Olorunfunmi. A J.J. Molson 47-yard field goal gave the Bruins a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Looks Are Deceiving
What it didn’t do was solve the problems of a sluggish offense. The 83 yards of first quarter offense was deceptive when you realize the Bruins had not put together any drive.
Cincinnati’s offense was no prize either and starting quarterback Hayden Moore was pulled halfway through the first quarter and replaced with redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder. What they got out of it was a 75-yard touchdown drive with a one-yard run by Michael Warren II.
Time for UCLA’s new high-powered offense now? On the next play from Scrimmage, Speight was picked off at his own 26 yard line. That led to another Warren touchdown run and a 14-10 Bearcats lead.
The day went from bad to non-existent for Speight. With 5:10 left in the half he got knocked out of the game with what appeared to be a lower back injury. Now it was time to begin the much-anticipated era of freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. After a 16-yard completion, UCLA had three straight plays for a loss and a small-ish Rose Bowl crowd of about 54,000, had to be asking if this was for real, as Cincinnati went into halftime with a 17-10 lead.
The Freshman “Finally” Arrives
The second half felt like an initial burst of “DTR” and some flares of energy. This is not to say it was perfect. Far from it. He was a freshman playing his first college game. Mistakes were plentiful. Some passes floated. Some were rushed. But the pace of the offense picked up. It was aided by a 74-yard touchdown run by Allen, who showed why he was a California high school sprint champion.
Even the intensity of the defense picked back up. They were gashed up the middle by Warren late in the first half and Bearcats finished the first half with 106 yards on the ground. But now the UCLA defense settled back in, cut off the edges. Defensive end Jaelan Phillips was living in the Cincinnati backfield. Defensive back Darnay Holmes was stride for stride with receivers and together it limited the big plays by Cincinnati.
Looks Are Deceiving, Part II
But the pep-in-the-step offense was a bit illusory. While it more resembled what fans expected, there were no real results to follow. Allen’s run tied the game at 17 just three minutes in the third quarter. On the next series Caleb Wilson made a nice one-handed grab over the middle for 16 yards. But those were the highlights in terms of production in the second half.
Christian Pabico and Wilson both dropped passes that were right there, and a drive was killed. Then, Thompson-Robinson fumbled inside his own five-yard when he misread the direction of the rush. The Bruins recovered in their own end zone and Cincinnati got the two points for the safety to go up 19-17.
Kelly tried to get bold. On fourth-and-three on his own 35-yard line, and down by two, with 5:46 left in the game, Kelly decided to go for the first down. Thompson-Robinson checked out of the play call. The center snap was at his feet. The pass was a little too wide and off the fingertips of receiver Dymond Lee.
As Cincinnati was stopped at the Bruins two-yard line and ready to attempt a field goal to go up by five, a UCLA defense that had played hard and smart all night got called for 12 men on the field. The ball was moved up to the one-yard line. The Bearcats put the offense back on the field and left it to Warren to put the game away with his third touchdown run of the game.
Where To From Here?
So, what now? Were the hopes of UCLA fans too high because Chip Kelly was on the sidelines now? Did they see a very beatable Cincinnati team and assume too much?
Kelly was publicly unfazed by the loss. “We knew we were young going in. We had a freshman quarterback, a freshman center, a freshman running back, freshman receivers. It was about giving them an opportunity to play. Now they have a game under their belt and we can go back and teach.” He was confident in going for it on fourth down late in the game and said Thompson-Robinson correctly checked out to the right play. It just wasn’t executed.
Allen admitted, “We were not at our fastest because of our learning curve.”
Kelly said despite starting Speight, Thompson-Robinson was always going to see playing time in the game. Speight got the call based on experience as a starter, according to Kelly.
It also is not that difficult to see the offense is different under the freshman. That is not a dig at Speight. It has been acknowledged by all willing that his role was not going to be run the sprint-out offense the team worked on all Spring. It is not in his bailiwick. As many adjustments as the staff may or may not have made in closed practices to accommodate Speight’s skill set, the offense was sluggish in the pro-set. With Thompson-Robinson, it was a matter of inches missed in execution. The two quarterbacks combined were 23 for 37 for 162 yards and no touchdowns.
It doesn’t matter for either unless the offensive line, the bane of UCLA’s existence for three years now, improves starting Monday. Thompson-Robinson was forced out of the pocket more than was the design, and Speight is not fast enough when leaving the pocket.
No pressure to fix things quickly, but UCLA “only” has to play at Oklahoma Saturday.