The UCLA 2019 season is finally over, and depending how painful watching them was for you, that may either be a good thing or a bad thing. They’ll finish the year 4-8 (4-5 in the Pac-12) and will miss out on a bowl game for the second straight season (which hasn’t happened to them since 1990). Now that the season is over, we can take a look back at how the year played out, what went well, and where improvement is needed.
UCLA 2019 Season Recap
Coming Into The Season
After the Bruins fired Jim Mora midseason two years ago, they decided to go with the unconventional hire in Chip Kelly for their new head coach. Mora was a solid coach who many Bruins fans felt was simply underachieving and couldn’t get UCLA over the hump. However, UCLA decided that the program needed a complete overhaul, and tasked Kelly–an opposite of Mora in many ways–to rebuild it from scratch. Mora likely deserved to be fired due to the regression during his last two seasons at UCLA, but the hire of Chip Kelly was a bold move that had boom or bust written all over it.
As a result of the change, the Bruins really struggled during their first year under Kelly. They won just three games during the 2018 season, their lowest total since 1989. It was a Bruins team in complete rebuilding mode, with one of the youngest rosters in football. Quarterback Josh Rosen, who left for the NFL after 2017, had covered up a lot of the roster weaknesses for much of Mora’s tenure, so regression was understandable. Having said that, the team was really bad, and this brought a whole new host of questions surrounding Kelly’s ability to coach, after relative failures in San Francisco and Philly. This is also considering the fact that Kelly was tasked with building up the UCLA program from scratch, something he hadn’t ever been asked to do during his prior coaching career.
However, the 2018 Bruins team did flash potential late in the season, and the hope coming into the second year of Chip Kelly’s tenure was that they would be able to build off of that late-season surge and show improvement during the 2019 season.
A Really Bad Start
On some level, it was evident from the first game of the season that improvement was nowhere to be found for this UCLA team. Similarly to the year before, UCLA opened up the season with a loss to Cincinnati, looking terrible in the process. They lost 24-14. The offense could not figure anything out, and the play of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a player I had been skeptical of for much of 2018, was alarming. I didn’t see much success on the horizon for this team coming out playing the way that they did, and somehow, things managed to get worse.
The following week, UCLA would lose to San Diego State at home, making their quarterback look like Joe Burrow in the process. Attendance numbers at the Rose Bowl began to plummet in a way we hadn’t seen since UCLA’s inception. And if UCLA couldn’t handle those two, then surely things weren’t going to get better against Oklahoma, where UCLA was predictably blown out for the second season in a row.
If you were a Bruin fan, the sky was falling. This was about as bad as it could get. After a year of learning and an offseason to put things together, UCLA looked just as bad as they did to start last year, if not worse.
A Miracle Win
In week 4, UCLA was playing Washington State, and things were looking about just as bad as they had been all year. About halfway through the third quarter, UCLA faced a 49-17 deficit. 0-4, here we come. What proceeded to happen next was one of the most inexplicable comebacks you’ll ever see, as something seemed to click inside this Bruins team. They would go on to stage a massive and ferocious rally, ultimately winning the game in an insane 67-63 shootout. It was an amazing win and one that UCLA fans will always be able to hold onto and look back on with fond memories.
However, it was also a bit of a fluky win, as much of the comeback was able to happen due to an unusual number of Wazzu turnovers in the form of stripped balls after the catch. It kept happening again and again, and having that kind of strip luck isn’t a sustainable formula for week to week success, nor is winning games 67-63. But if there was one good point to come out of the win, it was that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was phenomenal, and finally showed us that he might be capable of being a starter in this league. Both in the air and on the ground, he was able to make big play after big play.
Midseason Outlook Is Bleak
UCLA would follow up their miracle win with two losses: One in a 17-20 loss to Arizona, and the next in a 48-31 loss to Oregon State. This would bring them to just 1-5 on the season. The Bruins seemed to be in serious trouble at this point, with the miracle comeback looking like a fluke game. Especially painful was the Oregon State loss, as Oregon State is a team that perpetually is at the bottom of the Pac-12. Granted, they were better this year, but they absolutely slaughtered UCLA. It showed that there seemed to be no bottom for this team, and Chip Kelly’s future seemed to be in serious jeopardy at this point. A year and a half in, where was the progress? This was a bad team that was losing games and didn’t seem to be getting any better.
Brief Second Half Turnaround
What would come next was a brief period of excitement and certainly a pleasant surprise, as UCLA would reel off a win in their next three games, all division contests. They looked like a totally different team in the process. Against Stanford, the defense finally came to life. And against Arizona State and Colorado, UCLA’s offense got out to leads and cruised to victories, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson played well, and the running game came back to life.
The offensive line seemed to be jelling as well, and Chip Kelly would assure the critics that time was all that was needed for the young players to have some chemistry and for the coaches to find out what players were good at, which certainly had some truth to it.
For the second year in a row, UCLA seemed to be turning things around midseason after a terrible start, and for the second year in a row, UCLA actually had a shot at the Pac-12 South crown. Who woulda thought?
Bombs In Their Biggest Games
By this point in the season, UCLA had set themselves up with a clear path to the Pac-12 Championship Game. Win their next two (and most likely a third) and they would be in. Two tough road tests were ahead of them: The Utah Utes and the USC Trojans. This lineup would let us know whether UCLA’s midseason turnaround was a flash in the pan or if they truly were for real.
Going into this stretch, I didn’t expect UCLA to win either of these games. And not only did they not win them, but they got totally manhandled.
Against Utah, UCLA was a no show as they lost 49-3. The gap in talent between these two teams was pretty large, so it’s not all on UCLA, but they certainly didn’t help themselves with a horrible fumble-six by Dorian Thompson-Robinson. UCLA also let Tyler Huntley have a near flawless day in this one as he went 14/18 for 335 yards and 2 TDs, while Zack Moss did his usual thing on the ground. It was a pretty bad beatdown.
Up next was a road trip to USC, probably the biggest game of the season for this UCLA team. If you’re a head coach in the FBS, there are certain games and certain rivalries that you get paid to win. For UCLA, that game is the Victory Bell matchup against their SoCal rival, the USC Trojans. It’s by far the most important game of the season if you’re a Bruins fan, and Kelly’s ability to pull off a victory in this matchup last year was one of the reasons to be optimistic about his future with UCLA.
Now again, I didn’t expect UCLA to win this game like they did last year, as this year’s Trojan team was night and day from last year’s bunch. Still, if you’re a Bruins fan, this year’s result was particularly atrocious. UCLA lost 52-35 to SoCal, giving up a massive 515 yards and 4 Touchdowns to freshman QB Kedon Slovis along the way. UCLA’s defense was horrendous and could not get a stop for the life of them. And just like that, in the two biggest games of the season, UCLA looked nowhere near like they belonged. These were utterly one-sided affairs.
Close Out The Season With A Loss
UCLA would finish up the season hosting the California Golden Bears at the Rose Bowl. Cal is a good team, but this was definitely a winnable game for the Bruins, and the hope was that they would close out the season with a win, at least for the sake of morale. But instead, the same season-long problems for the Bruins flashed their ugly head, and UCLA lost decisively, 28-18. That gave UCLA a 4-8 record on the year–just one more win than they had last year–and brought Chip Kelly’s overall record with the Bruins to just 7-17 in two years.
So what actually went well for UCLA this season? Mainly, the passing game vastly improved from where it was last year. After another slow start to the season, Dorian Thompson-Robinson actually showed a lot of ability, and the passing game looked quite potent at times. Yes, he did have at least one turnover in each game he played, he tends to have fumbling problems (both forced and unforced), and as many have already pointed out, he has a troubling tendency to run backwards when pressured. No one’s going to mistake him for an NFL QB anytime soon.
Nonetheless, when he was able to get into a rhythm throwing the football, the UCLA offense became dangerous. It was pretty great to see considering the fact that for much of last year and early on this year, he looked borderline unplayable.
Along with DTR, you saw young receivers like Devin Asiasi (technically a tight end) and Kyle Philips come on strong, although the receiving corps as a whole did leave a lot to be desired, especially with drops.
And lastly, you can’t overlook the play of Joshua Kelley, who went over 1,000 yards for the second straight year. Even when he didn’t have great games statistically, he always ran hard. UCLA is going to miss him next year.
UCLA’s biggest issue by far this year was their defense, and specifically, the pass defense. And in a league where teams increasingly move the ball through the air, that’s a major problem. Poor defense was a big reason that Jim Mora was let go. Last year (2018), the defense was bad, better than it was when Mora left, but this year it’s even worse than it was under Mora.
In 2019, the UCLA defense gave up 310.8 passing yards per game. Not only is that last in the Pac-12, but it’s also second to worst in the entire country!!! That’s right; UCLA ranked 129th out of 130 teams in pass defense, trailing only New Mexico. It’s hard to come up with an adjective to describe how pitiful that is. Defensive Coordinator Jerry Azzinaro has been under fire by Bruins fans, and rightfully so. This defense has no choice but to get better. I guess if there’s any good news, it’s that it’d be pretty hard for them to get much worse.
Where else did the Bruins struggle this year? For whatever reason, Chip Kelly continues to have a problem with players leaving the program, an issue that hasn’t gotten much better as the season has ended. Recruiting hasn’t impressed anybody (prior to early signing day last week), and in-game coaching, game planning, and game prep are all areas of concern. Long story short, the Bruins have a lot of work to do.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, UCLA needs to win more games, and they need to show more consistency. This team did flash at times, but there wasn’t enough improvement from last year, nor is there enough direction for this program moving forward. All in all, this is a football team that is very much in transition, and the future of this program is very much in doubt at this point.