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Column: UCLA shows some improvement but no winning touch

UCLA v Colorado
Colorado’s Evan Worthington breaks up a pass to UCLA’s Caleb Wilson in the second quarter at Folsom Field on Friday in Boulder, Colo.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Demetric Felton had a step on his defender. All the sophomore receiver had to do was run under the football that Dorian Thompson-Robinson heaved from the other end of the field.

Felton extended his arms. The football barely eluded his outstretched hands and bounced on the Folsom Field turf.

Almost.

A couple of inches here or there and UCLA could have reclaimed the lead against undefeated Colorado midway through the third quarter.

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Except almost doesn’t count.

Not in the place UCLA calls home. Not in a city in which success is measured by championships and championships only.

In Los Angeles, it’s win or else, and UCLA is 0-4.

So while the Bruins offered a preview of the team they one day could become under Chip Kelly, their 38-16 defeat to undefeated Colorado on Friday night ultimately showed the enormous distance they have to cover to make themselves relevant in what has become the most competitive sports market in the country.

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The inches between Felton’s fingertips and the football might as well be miles.

Kelly seems to understand this. While saying he was hopeful the Bruins were close to putting everything together, the coach cautioned, “It’s not a magic switch you just flip.”

Die-hard UCLA fans, like the ones who traveled to Colorado and braved the 40-something-degree cold here, can take pleasure over the remainder of the season in watching the kind of progress their team made in the 13 days from its previous loss.

Everyone else can check back in with the Bruins next year.

Los Angeles doesn’t have the patience to watch a team make incremental progress, unless the team in question is the Lakers. The city demands a finished product and the Bruins aren’t close to that. They could win a few games. They might even upset USC. But nothing they do this year will generate nearly as much excitement as Kelly’s hiring in November.

They might not next year, either.

But if they win, the fans will respond. They will come out of nowhere to pack the stands. The Rams are evidence of that. Non-factors in the market only two seasons ago, they are now the reason the city is counting down the days to Super Bowl LIII.

And the Bruins will have their day.

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If the game in Colorado showed anything, it was that the UCLA faithful has a reason to believe other than Kelly’s resume.

These weren’t the same Bruins who were embarrassed at the Rose Bowl by Fresno State nearly two weeks earlier.

They moved the football. They passed with confidence. They blocked with force. They ran with conviction.

True freshman Thompson-Robinson looked more composed and showed real play-making ability, floating a first-quarter pass over Colorado defensive back Ronnie Blackmon into the awaiting hands of Michael Ezeike in the right corner of the end zone to open the scoring.

The previously porous offensive line was solidified by junior center Boss Tagaloa’s return from a three-game suspension, creating openings for running back Joshua Kelley, who rushed for 124 yards in 12 carries.

“I think that we can be consistent when we are running and throwing the ball,” Kelly said. “I think that we are balanced on the offensive side of the ball and that helped us out.”

And the Bruins were bold. They converted on fourth down from the Colorado 45-yard line late in the second quarter. The play extended a drive that culminated with JJ Molson nailing a career-best 50-yard field goal.

But here’s the reality: Even after all of that, they were down at halftime, 14-13.

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And they were basically blown out in the second half, as they were outscored by the Buffaloes, 24-3.

Many of the Bruins are only a year or two removed from high school and their lack of physical maturity showed. UCLA wore down.

The offensive line couldn’t protect Thompson-Robinson and couldn’t open holes for the running backs. The defense also looked fatigued, the group’s precision in the first half replaced by missed tackles. They were flagged for costly personal fouls.

So rather than celebrate the first half, Kelly lamented the second.

Because close isn’t close enough. UCLA’s journey back to prominence has just started.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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