It’s never fun to finish the season with a loss. It’s even less fun when that loss is in a bowl game. And it’s damn near humiliating when the winning team is playing almost all backups while you are playing almost all starters. And when the loss stops you from getting to ten wins on the year. That is where the UCLA Bruins find themselves as the 2022 college football season comes to a close.
UCLA Bowl Game Review
As I warned previously, this game was never going to be a walk in the park. Pat Narduzzi coached teams play close, tough games, regardless of who they are playing. The game went back and forth, and Pitt never looked like a team of backups. As is often the case, UCLA dug a hole, fought back, and then lost it very late in the game. It certainly could have gone either way.
But this really shouldn’t be a game that UCLA loses. With their dangerous offense, they should be able to easily outscore a Pitt team of backups. And even in the close loss, it didn’t even look like a game where Pitt was dominant. Yardages were about even, and UCLA averaged 7.4 yards per play to Pitt’s 5.0. UCLA was also 5/10 on third down, whereas Pitt was 6/18. Those are usually not winning numbers.
Of course, the two biggest splits that stand out are the time of possession (Pitt’s 37:03 to UCLA’s 22:57), and more importantly, turnovers. UCLA had 5 turnovers on the day, with 4 interceptions thrown and a fumble on a kickoff (a reminder that Kazmeir Allen has been very much missed as of recently). The result was UCLA blowing a 28-14 lead and Pitt scoring 17 unanswered points. UCLA also turned the ball over on downs with 2:21 left, and they were lucky to get it back after Pitt fumbled on 4th and 1.
After that, UCLA then took the lead 35-34, but they were unable to stop the Pitt offense from getting into field goal range, and Pitt took a 37-35 lead with just 4 seconds left.
As for the turnovers, the first two picks were tipped balls over the middle. There’s not much you can do about those other than catch the ball. DTR can throw those balls a little too hard sometimes, but you still have to catch them. DTR’s third interception was, unfortunately, not a very good decision at all. It looked like he didn’t process the underneath coverage and threw the ball directly to the defender. His last pick came on a hail mary as time expired.
As for the Bruins defense, Nick Patti was really effective running the ball–something Pitt’s starter Kedon Slovis, did not give them–and something that UCLA did not look prepared for. He also made some big-time throws in part because UCLA was unable to pressure him enough. They often played too passively on defense, eschewing their blitz-heavy looks from earlier in the season. Patti also did a good job extending plays a couple of times when he was pressured.
Two things really irked me late in this game for UCLA. One was a key pass from Pitt’s game-winning drive, a 17-yarder that brought Pitt to the plus side of the field. From the limited angle of the replay that CBS showed, it looked like the ball clearly moved and may have hit the ground. Even the announcers initially thought it wasn’t a catch. But the booth, for whatever reason, chose not to review the play. Pitt got really lucky there.
The next thing that irked me was what happened on the ensuing kickoff with just 4 seconds left. Pitt got a penalty for excessive celebration, moving the kickoff back from the 35 to the 20. Pitt kicked the ball to UCLA’s 22 and there was no one from Pitt even on the screen when the UCLA returner caught it. For whatever reason–and this was most likely a coaching decision–he chose to call for a fair catch, which gained a whopping 3 yards of field position and one extra play. DTR tried to throw a hail mary, but it came up incredibly short because no one can throw a hail mary from their own 25.
Why would you not take your chances and try to run that back for a touchdown? Pitt was backed up due to the penalty and had to kick off from the 20. That makes a return very feasible, and there were all sorts of space ahead of the returner! That kick could have very well been returned for a touchdown, but instead, UCLA chose to run an impossible play. It may seem minor, but it’s bad coaching (or a bad decision if the UCLA returner made that decision on his own).
Anyway, that’s how it ended, 34-35, and UCLA finishes the season 9-4. Overall it was a good year. It was Chip Kelly’s best win total yet, he proved that he had changed the culture at UCLA, and the team had a legitimate shot at the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl game. It’s hard to argue with those results for a school that generally just isn’t that big of a football school. The most wins UCLA has ever had in a season is 10, and that only happened 8 times over the course of a century. Obviously, Chip Kelly has done a good job. Although it’s worth mentioning that Jim Mora, Kelly’s predecessor, won 10 games twice.
At the same time, UCLA has clearly not reached its ceiling in recent seasons, and that’s pretty disappointing for a team that you know can realistically win the Pac-12. UCLA wasn’t good for the first two years of Chip Kelly’s tenure. But since then, it’s been very “close”.
In 2020, they were 3-4, but the four losses were by a combined 13 points. In 2021, they were 8-4 but 6-3 in the Pac-12. They were outmatched vs Arizona State and Utah. And against Oregon, where College Gameday was hosted, they pretty much lost their season with a 3-point loss where–stop me if you’ve heard this before–they faced a big deficit early. Later that season, when they were already out of things, they put up 62 on USC.
And in 2022, UCLA didn’t match up well against Oregon and lost an inexplicable game to Arizona. That gave them less margin for error against USC, but they wouldn’t even use it. They lost 48-45. That could have been a statement game against a rival team with a lot of hype that UCLA could have shut down. Instead, the Caleb Williams train took off and UCLA was embarrassed. Along with the Pitt loss, UCLA ended up losing 3 of their last 4 in 2022.
The problem is not just the losing per se, it’s the fact that we know they can do better. Chip Kelly runs a really good offense. The players are essentially interchangeable, as it seems to make stars out of any running back. Chip also elevated the play of DTR big time, who, once a liability, became an asset for UCLA. We’ll see how this offense looks with the next QB. But regardless, UCLA’s offense puts up some of the best numbers in the country. At their peak, they should be able to play with anybody (within reason).
So what happens? They get sloppy during big games. The pass blocking is not as good as the run blocking. They’ll dig themselves into holes. They turn the football over. And they don’t play as well without a lead. And then there’s the defense. It’s had its moments, but it tends to not be able to do much of anything during big games against good opponents. The defense against Caleb Williams was atrocious. Chip Kelly’s never really had good defensive teams, so I’m skeptical this will change under his watch.
Chip Kelly’s win trajectory has been on the rise, so this could very well change! Programs take time to build. I never thought Jim Harbaugh would beat Ohio State, but he is now 2-0 against them in the last two years after starting 0-5. It’s hard to sit here and say that Chip Kelly is the problem, and I certainly am not saying that.
But, you gotta do it when it counts. You gotta win the big games. The Pac-12 belongs to USC, Oregon, and Utah until we have reason to believe otherwise. UCLA should be in this fight, and they have been. But it always seems to be “just missed it”. They give you a taste of what it means to be elite, and then they fall back to just very good. That is frustrating as a fan.
At this point in time, there’s no reason UCLA shouldn’t be able to win the Pac-12. They have one more year to do so until things are likely to get much tougher in the Big Ten. So when UCLA shows those flashes of greatness, let’s hope to see them consistently throughout the season in all the games that matter. If UCLA can do that, then maybe the fans will finally be able to see how it feels when you reach your goals instead of coming up just short. Because in football, like in life, “just short” doesn’t cut it.