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UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight doesn't make it through first half after being named starter

UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight doesn't make it through first half after being named starter
UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight breaks free for a long gain against Cincinnati. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA and Cincinnati both switched quarterbacks before halftime Saturday, though the Bruins didn’t have much of a choice.

Starter Wilton Speight hobbled off the field late in the second quarter after being pummeled into the ground on a hit. It was a discouraging debut for the graduate transfer from Michigan who had been named UCLA’s starter only two days before the Bruins’ season opener.

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Speight didn’t make it to halftime of UCLA’s 26-17 defeat against the Bearcats, sitting out the balance of the game with what coach Chip Kelly said was a back injury. Kelly said he was unsure of Speight’s status for next week, when the Bruins travel to face No. 7 Oklahoma.

Kelly said he went with Speight as his starter over true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson and redshirt sophomore Devon Modster because of his experience. Speight started 16 games over parts of three seasons at Michigan.

“It’s a really, really young team to begin with and Wilton has a calming influence around everybody,” Kelly said of the quarterback who completed eight of 12 passes for 45 yards with one interception.

Kelly said he intended to use Thompson-Robinson even if Speight wasn’t hurt.

Thompson-Robinson was greeted with cheers from fans when he jogged onto the field. His first pass went for a 16-yard completion after receiver Theo Howard made the catch and spun away from the defender for a first down. But the next three plays went for losses, including a sack, and the Bruins had to punt.

Speight had largely mixed results before his departure. He showed some quickness while sidestepping a pass rusher before completing a pass to tight end Jordan Wilson for a first down but also threw a bit too far inside on a pass that was intercepted by safety James Wiggins, who got a good break on the ball.

Cincinnati’s offense started rolling once redshirt freshman quarterback Des-mond Ridder replaced senior starter Hayden Moore after two sluggish drives. Ridder looked far more polished than his veteran counterpart, helping the Bearcats sustain long drives with accurate passes and speedy runs.

Start them up

UCLA true freshman Christaphany Murray and redshirt juniors Joshua Kelley and Tyree Thompson won the final battles for starting jobs. Murray beat out Zach Sweeney at center, Kelley edged Bolu Olorunfunmi at tailback and Thompson largely won a battle of attrition at inside linebacker against Lokeni Toailoa after Bo Calvert, Je’Vari Anderson and Leni Toailoa did not dress for the game because of lingering injuries from training camp.

Murray became the first true freshman to start a season opener along UCLA’s offensive line since Najee Toran against Virginia in 2014.

“I felt like he competed really well,” Kelly said. “I mean, you’re talking about a kid right out of high school and he just started in August and played today, but for a true freshman center, we didn’t have any errant snaps. I thought he did a decent job putting us in the right situations with the right calls. We were pleased with Chris today.”

Etc.

Howard caught a team-high five passes for 52 yards and has now caught at least one pass in 17 consecutive games. … Senior safety Adarius Pickett made a career-high 14 tackles. … Cincinnati’s Michael Pitts was ejected for targeting in the first quarter after he lowered his head into Speight. … Cincinnati snapped UCLA’s six-game winning streak at the Rose Bowl, handing the Bruins their first defeat on their home field since they lost to USC in 2016. UCLA’s 10-game winning streak against nonconference teams at the Rose Bowl also ended. … The Bruins are 7-9 all-time against teams in the current American Athletic Conference.

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