Coming off a disappointing game 1 loss, UCLA was supposed to play Utah this past weekend. I wrote in my preview for that game that UCLA looked sloppy against Colorado and likely would be in for an 0-2 start to the season after facing off against Kyle Whittingham’s Utes. However, shortly after I finished that article–and before it could be published–it was announced that the Utah game was canceled due to the Utes struggling with covid.
Elsewhere in the PAC-12, the California Golden Bears were supposed to play the Arizona State Sun Devils, but ASU too did not have enough healthy scholarship players to suit up, and this game was also canceled. So at the last minute, the PAC-12 arranged for Cal to play UCLA on Sunday at the Rose Bowl. It would be the first game of the season for Cal.
And surprisingly, UCLA was able to pull off a win, and a rather comfortable one at that. They defeated the Golden Bears 34-10, and now sit at 1-1 on this shortened season. It’s the first time that Kelly has reached .500 in his Bruins tenure.
Under Chip Kelly, UCLA started the 2018 season 0-5 (finished 3-9), and they started the 2019 season 0-3 (finished 4-8). So they are not used to having wins this early in the season, and pulling this one off was certainly a pleasant surprise for the UCLA fandom. UCLA is winless outside of the PAC-12 during the Chip Kelly era, so it’s quite possible that they really don’t miss having to play an out of conference slate this year.
My hopes were not high for this Bruins team after the first two years of the Chip Kelly era, and they certainly were not high after watching them last week against Colorado. Early on in this one, it looked like more of the same, as the Bruins had a punt blocked inside their own 30 on the first possession of the game, followed up with a poor interception thrown by Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
But after that, it was pretty smooth sailing. DTR wasn’t asked to do a whole lot, but he bounced back pretty well after that first pick, completing 14 of 26 passes for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also had a rushing touchdown to go along with 52 rushing yards on 12 carries. He was able to spread the ball around as Charles Njoku, Kyle Phillips, and Chase Cota all scored touchdowns. Greg Dulcich, Demetric Felton, and Kyle Phillips all had 3 receptions each, as Charles Njoku and Kazmeir Allen had two each. Dulcich led the day with 80 yards receiving, in part due to a wide-open catch and run he had on a seam pass late in the second quarter.
More importantly, UCLA was able to run the ball in this game. Demetric Felton led the day with 107 yards on 25 carries (4.3 avg). Brittain Brown was next with 71 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries (5.9 avg), followed by DTR with the aforementioned 52 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries (4.3 avg). All together, it added up to over 200 yards rushing for the Bruins.
And lastly, UCLA’s defense was much improved in this one. The Golden Bears struggled to move the ball all day, as the Bruins were able to get consistent pressure on Cal quarterback Chase Garbers.
Overall, it was a comfortable and very complete win for UCLA.
I do believe that UCLA caught a break by not having to play Utah this week. I do not think they would have fared remotely similarly against the Utes. But UCLA has played Cal well in the past. During Chip Kelly’s first year, UCLA beat Cal 37-7, which would turn out to be their most dominant win of that year. Now with this win, Kelly’s Bruins move to 2-1 against Wilcox’s Golden Bears.
Comparing the two teams is interesting, as Wilcox is now in his fourth year as the Cal coach, just one more than Chip Kelly at UCLA. At the time of Kelly’s hiring, it was widely considered that UCLA had made the better head coaching hire. But Wilcox has impressed as the Bears coach, building a solid foundation and showing gradual improvement as the years pass. The same cannot really be said of Kelly at UCLA.
But the Bears’ Achilles heel in the Wilcox era has been on offense. They have been solid on defense, but they struggle to move the ball and have been plagued by inconsistent quarterback play. In this one, the Bruins were able to get out in front early, which allowed them to play the game on their terms and commit to running the football. That has typically been when the Bruins are at their best, and it’s more or less how they will have to play moving forward.
The Bruins showed improvement on both sides of the ball in this one. A defense that has been pitiful as of recent showed up to play. DTR, for the most part, was able to avoid the mistakes that have plagued him so often as a Bruin. The offense played with tempo and rhythm. They were multiple, effective, and showed physicality upfront.
When the Bruins have been able to get momentum going in the run game under Kelly, they’re tough to stop. And it cannot be understated how important Demetric Felton’s big day on the ground is. His ability to replace Joshua Kelley in the running game as a primary foundation back will be key for this team moving forward. And lastly, UCLA was able to distribute the ball effectively through the air to multiple targets and keep the Bears guessing. This is a very different Bruins offense when they can be proactive instead of reactive.
Now, there are other factors that may have contributed to this win. Cal was playing their first game of the year, and they did not have any time to prepare for the Bruins. As I mentioned, they really have not been an effective passing team in the slightest under Wilcox, and it’s very possible their struggles in this one may have had more to do with their own weaknesses rather than anything the Bruins defense did. Cal also has a new offensive coordinator this year in Bill Musgrave. Musgrave has an NFL background and was clearly trying to run a pretty full pro-style offense. That’s not always the easiest or most effective thing to do with college athletes, and the Bears looked out of sync and uncomfortable playing in this scheme.
So at the end of the day, I don’t hold any illusions about who this Bruins team is. They still have a long way to go to being a good football team under Chip Kelly–that is, if they ever get there.
But at the end of the day, a turnaround was never going to happen overnight for this team. After two years of regression, the question for this season is not whether the Bruins are going to be a great team–we know they’re not. The questions are, one, are they showing improvement, and two, are the new players contributing? In this game, the answer to both of those questions was an emphatic yes.
At the end of the day, a win’s a win. And considering that there hasn’t been much of that for the Bruins in recent memory, they’ll happily take it.