Taken in the context in which it is intended, you know what worked about playing college football in the 2020 year of Covid? It allowed the Bruins to play in an empty Rose Bowl, so they did not have to witness scenes like the above photo, time and time again. It doesn’t happen with every loss. Some teams don’t travel well. But certainly, UCLA home losses, as they mount in the Chip Kelly era, have provided us with plenty of photo evidence. Fresno State on multiple occasions; Arizona State, San Diego State, Oklahoma, Oregon. When is it enough for UCLA fans?
The Bruins are 15-24 overall in the Chip Kelly era. The current 5-3 status is, in reality, a mild improvement that is being treated like massive progress. They are 7- 14 at the Rose Bowl in the Kelly era. That may sound insignificant, but the weekend loss to Oregon is only the latest example of why it matters.
How Did We Get Here?
UCLA fans have a propensity to take to social media to complain about the lack of love and appreciation from national media. Based on a 10-21 record going into this season, there was not much that warranted the desired adoration.
UCLA got an early season win over LSU. There was confetti throughout the Rose Bowl after the game. Athletic director Martin Jarmond was hugging players on their way into the locker room. Conference commissioner George Kliavkoff was high-fiving every Bruin he could find. UCLA was the top story on every college football recap show that night. It was a victory over an SEC blueblood just two years removed from a national championship. Visions of Kelly’s belief in, “The Process,” danced through everyone’s head. But a funny thing happened since that win. It turns out LSU isn’t very good, and its coach is packing up his office to leave at the end of the season. What was a signature win turns out to be a plain-wrap win.
That gets us to this last weekend. UCLA was in the middle part of a tough three game stretch. They took care of Washington in the first part. It turns out Washington is a mere shell of what most of us thought they would be before the season started. Still a win in Seattle is not to be summarily dismissed. Now even as UCLA was unranked, they were set to host the # 10th ranked Oregon Ducks. Oregon is legitimately carrying the one marquee win for the entire conference, with its victory on the road over Ohio State.
The Nation Was Watching
Here came the national media love that UCLA fans so crave. ESPN College GameDay was going to do its show from campus. The number one broadcast team would do the game. And then the Bruins did what they have a 20+ year habit of doing. They did not come through when the lights were at their brightest.
While there is a chorus of those who want to congratulate the Bruins for things like not giving up when they were up against it in the fourth quarter, there are significant underlying problems with this loss in particular.
Oregon’s offense is entirely defendable. Its quarterback, Anthony Brown, has a completion percentage less than 40% when throwing passes of more than 25 yards. His game is the roll out, throw on the run, short game. Anyone who has watched all of Oregon’s game has seen it. Yet against UCLA’s defense, which week after week gives unnecessary cushion to receivers, Brown went a hot 29 of 39 for 296 yards. Yes, UCLA “shut down” the Oregon rushing game. The Ducks star tailback, CJ Verdell, is out for the season. There is no resemblance between the Oregon running game now, and the one that beat Ohio State. Yet the UCLA defense gave up the underneath passing game to Oregon all day. It was the equivalent of knowing a baseball hitter thrives on fastballs, and then pitching fastballs to them all night.
From the beginning of the second quarter until the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Oregon outscored UCLA 34-3. While the UCLA comeback looked compelling, it never should have come to that.
UCLA’s offense has similarities to Oregon’s. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is not effective as a pocket passer looking through his progressions to go downfield. He is a rhythm quarterback who needs the pace of a short passing game to go with a strong run game.
After the game, Kelly said Oregon stacked the box to stop UCLA’s run game. When he reviews the entire game film what he will see is that Oregon brought a safety in tighter. It was daring Thompson-Robinson to go downfield, knowing it is not his strong suit. He was not effective trying to go long. And the ancillary benefit for Oregon was UCLA was held to its lowest rushing total since the loss to Cal at the end of the 2019 season.
Oregon outsprinted UCLA’s defense in the open field with the short game. The Ducks outgained the Bruins 417 yards to 352. And they did it on 28 fewer plays. They were simply more efficient when efficiency was required.
Selling The Hype
This was UCLA’s moment to shine. Jarmond spent the week playing his role of UCLA promoter. He made sure there were a couple thousand students representing the school at 6am Saturday for the ESPN show. Much less time was spent by the school preparing game attendees for the new Covid vaccination mandates. That resulted in backed up lines at the entrance gates, and the stadium not reaching its full attendance number for the game until the second quarter. Last Word received several messages from fans facing inexcusably long lines just to get in. The school had a month’s notice from LA County and the City of Pasadena and did a woefully insufficient marketing and information job.
Still, the day was there for the taking. But one of the most veteran teams in the country did not produce as should be expected. Protecting a two-touchdown lead was too difficult. Asking senior defensive backs to know they cannot stand over the line of scrimmage before a snap was too much to ask. Doing better than 10 of 19 on third done was apparently a stretch. Making in-game adjustments to get your highly touted running game to produce more than two-and-a-half yards per carry was maybe too hard. UCLA recorded seven yards of offense in the third quarter. Seven yards. That is why such a valiant comeback effort was needed.
Even with all the excitement and the work by Jarmond and his staff, the game drew a little over 55,000. That is 15,000 below the revamped capacity, and 5,000 fewer than the what the LSU game drew. Flash ticket sales, giveaways to students, and the chance at the biggest win in four years were not enough to fill a stadium in which UCLA had already reduced the capacity by tarping over mostly unused seats.
Experienced vs. Good
After the game, Kelly offered this insight; “We still have to take the approach of, you know, we’ll analyze the film. What corrections can we make? Which ones were good plays by them? Which ones can we fix and can we clean up? The self-inflicted wounds as we talked about earlier, the illegal procedures and the lining up offsides, you know, we can fix those things and not hurt ourselves.” With a team fourth in the country in returning production, UCLA far too often is still trying to fix training camp fundamentals.
Oregon is a far younger team than UCLA. But here was head coach Mario Cristobal after the game. ““Number one, we want to make sure our best players have the best chance to make plays. Number two is what they play. They are a very complex defense, now. You saw they play trap coverage, a ton of zero, they’ll play some post safety cloud. I mean every single snap is something different and you’ve got to get them to tell you what they’re doing with their shifts, motions and alignments and whatnot. That’s where I think out quarterback today really excelled and took advantage – when I say advantage, it’s making plays that you need to make against tough looks in tough situations.” That is a stark difference in tone and reality.
UCLA could win its remaining four games and go 9-3, but that is not reality. Their current five wins are against subpar Hawai’i, LSU, and Arizona teams along with middling Stanford and Washington programs. Above average Fresno State and Arizona State beat them, along with a good Oregon team. Now UCLA faces its toughest test, on the road, at night, in Salt Lake City. After that it is three winnable games against bad Colorado, USC, and Cal teams. The home crowds for the Colorado and Cal games will be sparse. Ticket giveaways and flash sales won’t be nearly to climb into the 50,000 range. Scraping for bowl eligibility isn’t an exciting sell.
An 8-4 record is doable, but there is zero margin for error in those last three games to get there. And, as fans pointed out Saturday, all it takes is six wins to be bowl eligible. If that is the defense of the current situation, then UCLA fans need to take a look around at the bunker they have created for themselves.
When will GameDay be back? Not any time soon. The UCLA non-conference games next season are against FCS schools and one that has been an FBS program for a couple of months. You will get no credit from the national media for a good record until November. You had a chance in the bright lights. Despite all the hype and salesmanship of the week, you didn’t complete the job on the field. So it was yet another case of the visiting fans and team celebrating while you sluffed away to the locker room. How much of this is too much to take?