There are certain truisms in college football. There are no moral victories. Close is not good enough. And it does not matter if your quarterback is Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Chase Griffin, or Tom Brady. When you turn the ball over more than the other team, you will lose. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly even refers to percentages about your odds based on how many turnovers you have. Saturday was proof-positive as UCLA gives away chances against Oregon in a tough loss to swallow, 38-35.
UCLA Gives Away Chances Against Oregon
UCLA went into Saturday’s Oregon game at Eugene without starting quarterback Thompson-Robinson. He was one of at least 10 players left in LA under conference COVID protocols. He teased people on his twitter account Friday night as to his whereabouts, but most knew he did not make the plane trip to Oregon. UCLA reported two positive COVID cases on the football team Friday night, but there are others who have to be put in contact tracing isolation.
Chase Griffin Debut
That left the quarterbacking job to redshirt freshman Chase Griffin, making his first ever college start. Griffin showed moments of Moxy and moments of skill. He also turned the ball over three times, (two interceptions and a fumble). Griffin finished the game 19 of 31 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown. He was one Kyle Philips dropped pass away from having UCLA in a position for a game-tying field goal in the closing seconds.
Considering the back-up quarterback is usually a fan favorite on the team, there will be plenty of clamoring to see more of Griffin. While Kelly said after the game that the plans did not change with Griffin at quarterback, it felt different. The Bruins ran the quarterback option with significant success, Griffin’s short and intermediate passing game was mostly good, and they ran the ball with strong efficiency. Demetric Felton finished the game with 167 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries.
It turns out the Bruins knew late Wednesday, per Kelly, that Thompson-Robinson would not play this weekend. Griffin took over with the first team reps Thursday and Friday. Kelly said after the game that this offensive scheme, which had more pace and went wide more often, was always going to be game plan, regardless of who played quarterback.
Different Day, Same Turnovers
The Bruins were digging themselves out of an early hole again thanks to turnovers. On an option keeper at the Oregon 46-yard line, Griffin was hit and fumbled. It was recovered by Verone McKinley III and returned 35 yards to the UCLA 19-yard line. It took only play for the Ducks to capitalize. Quarterback Tyler Shough connected with Devon Williams for the 19-yard touchdown pass and the 7-0 Oregon lead.
On the ensuing kick-off, Qwuantrezz Knight returned the ball 21 yards but was hit at the 27 yard line and fumbled. Johnny Johnson recovered, and Oregon wasted no time scoring again. One play later, Shough found Travis Dye for the touchdown. Two UCLA fumbles and two Oregon touchdowns. Teams that do not take care of the ball do not win. UCLA dominated the time of possession by a 2.5:1 margin, but when you only have to go short yards because of turnovers, like Oregon did, you don’t need a lot of clock.
UCLA Gets Into Game
The Bruins did show temerity in the first quarter. Kyle Philips got 29 yards on an option play. Griffin completed a pass to Ethan Fernea for another 13 yards to the Oregon nine-yard line. Two Felton runs and the Bruins were on the board at 14-7.
UCLA evened the score early in the second quarter. Bo Calvert hit Oregon running back CJ Verdell hard, causing a fumble. Knight recovered it at the 20-yard line and ran it in for the touchdown and the 14-14 tie.
Oregon went back out front with a Camden Lewis 23-yard field goal.
Game Altering Decision
Griffin was clearly unflustered, though. On the next UCLA possession, he dropped a perfectly place over-the-shoulder ball to tight end Greg Dulcich over the middle of the field for a 32-yard touchdown pass. Bruin fandom was giddy throughout social media. Griffin had connected on his first seven passes. Felton had 83 yards rushing already. The pace of the offense felt different. The defense was more aggressive than anything UCLA has shown this season. And then the roof caved in.
Kelly could have gone conservative in the closing 30 seconds of the half and taken a lead into the locker room. Instead he let Griffin take a shot downfield. He was hit as he threw, and the ball fluttered up. It was intercepted by Oregon’s Jordan Happle and returned 58 yards for a touchdown. The lead was gone. The momentum was gone. And Oregon was going to get the ball to start the second half.
As he was assessing his team’s performance after the game, Kelly said, “We’ve just got to get the head coach to stop making bad calls at the end of the first half.”
Oregon Takes Advantage
As much as there was another half to play, and there were plenty of positives to be taken from the way Griffin was running the offense, it was a game changing decision and on-field mistake. On its opening drive, Oregon went 75 yards in just seven plays. Verdell finished it with a four-yard touchdown run and a 31-21 lead. UCLA would be playing from behind since the ill-fated play to end the half.
Its not that UCLA did not have some level of fight left. Later in the third quarter, they mounted a 13-play drive, with 12 of them coming on the ground. Brittain Brown gained 10 yards on the last two plays, including a two-yard touchdown run. The Oregon led was down to 31-28.
Another Griffin interception led to another Oregon touchdown. His throw to Dulcich in double coverage sailed on him and was picked off by McKinley.
Two minutes later, Shough found Hunter Kampmoyer in the middle of the end zone, the most open he has probably ever been on a football field. Oregon’s lead was back up to 10 points.
Last Chance Is Dropped
The Bruins had one last gasp. A heavy dose of Felton for 27 yards on four carries, including the final 11 for a touchdown got UCLA back to within three at 38-35 with 3:43 left.
The stopped Oregon’s offense on four plays and got the ball back with 1:24 left in the game. They picked up yards and were closing in on field goal range. But on 4th and 12, Philips dropped Griffins pass.
After the game, Griffin said he was not phased by his first college start. He said he did not have any nerves. “Just the normal energy. I really recognized it as a blessing.” He gave Thompson-Robinson credit for helping him prepare for the start, once it became official late Wednesday.
Some Good Mixed In With Giving Games Away
Felton gave credit to his offensive line for his game. “My o-line, they played their butts off today. I was super proud of them. They made it easy for me to get five yards a carry. I am super proud of them.” He also said he was not surprised by Griffin’s debut. “Chase is a gamer. He is really calm, cool, and collected.”
Kelly after the game on his quarterback; “We felt like we could exploit the quarterback run and I thought Chase did a good job of it.”
There is a lot to be taken from Griffin’s performance, as well as Felton’s, and an amped up defense. Particularly, with time the players who stayed back today will have to miss going forward. But they are averaging three turnovers per game as they prepare to host Arizona next Saturday. Kelly has those stats about how your chances shrink with each turnover you give away. And as he said many times in the past, “You are what your record says you are.” The Bruins are 1-2 with only four games left, and it is because of self-inflicted damage.