UCLA wide receiver Christian Pabico can’t find the handle on a pass as Cincinnati’s Ethan Tucky defends in the third quarter at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown against UCLA late in the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder escapes the grasp of UCLA linebacker Jaelen Philips in the first half at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes breaks up a pass intended for Cincinnati wide receiver Kahlil Lewis in the third quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambles out of the pocket against Cincinnati in the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II splits the defense of UCLA’s Martin Andrus Jr. (44) and Quentin Lake (37) in the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Chip Kelly works the sideline in his first game as UCLA’s head coach at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Bruins running back Kazmer Allen greaks off a big gain against Cincinnati in the first quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
In his first game as a college head coach, Chip Kelly’s team scored only eight points in a defeat on the road against a nationally ranked team. His top running back was suspended after he threw a postgame punch.
This might have been worse.
Kelly lost his starting quarterback, a 10-point lead and ultimately his UCLA debut after the Bruins bungled a fourth-down play by putting 12 men on the field — coming out of a timeout.
Kelly’s return to the college game was largely a dud Saturday before a crowd of 54,116 at the Rose Bowl, the two-touchdown favorite Bruins falling flat in the biggest moments of a 26-17 loss to Cincinnati in their season opener.
“I think I’m disappointed in the mistakes that we made,” Kelly said after his first game at this level since the 2013 Fiesta Bowl with the Oregon Ducks.
The biggest blunders came in the fourth quarter. UCLA put one man too many on the field while lining up to try to block a short Cincinnati field goal with less than two minutes to play. The field goal would have given the Bearcats a five-point lead but also presented the Bruins with a chance to win the game with a quick touchdown drive.
But the penalty made it fourth and goal from the one-yard line and Cincinnati decided to go for the touchdown, converting when running back Michael Warren plowed ahead for his third scoring run of the game.
“Definitely a miscommunication,” said UCLA safety Darnay Holmes, one of the Bruins on the field during the penalty. “There’s not much that we can do on that.”
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was also left wanting a do-over. The true freshman, who made his college debut after starter Wilton Speight went down with a back injury late in the second quarter, had the ball stripped for a safety early in the fourth quarter, giving Cincinnati a 19-17 lead.
Kelly tried to build the young quarterback’s confidence a few minutes later when the coach instructed his team to go for it on fourth and one from UCLA’s 36 while still trailing by only two points.
“Take a chance,” Kelly said of his decision. “I knew we needed a spark.”
Thompson-Robinson, under pressure, checked down into a short pass to receiver Dymond Lee. But the throw was wide, giving the ball back to Cincinnati for its clinching touchdown drive.
UCLA’s mistakes could partially be pinned on missing six suspended players and playing 11 true freshmen. Several flashed enticing potential, including Kazmeir Allen, who ran untouched for a 74-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, pulling the Bruins into a 17-17 tie. He finished the game with 103 yards rushing in only five carries.
UCLA ran almost exclusively a hurry-up offense out of the shotgun formation, bearing some resemblance to Kelly’s Oregon teams. But the results did not come close to aligning with those of the prolific Ducks. The disjointed Bruins gained only 306 yards of offense and failed to convert both of their fourth-down attempts.
Thompson-Robinson blamed himself for not having a plan for some of the coverages he faced.
“First college game wasn’t up to par — to my standards, at least,” Thompson-Robinson said. “And so I’m definitely looking to get better.”
Bruins redshirt freshman cornerback Elijah Gates couldn’t make the stop on receiver Jayson Jackson in the second quarter despite initially driving him back several yards. Jackson sprinted past Gates on a play that went for 18 yards.
“There were times when we could have negated some of the bigger gains when we had people there,” Kelly said, “but we didn’t do a good enough job fundamentally tackling and wrapping up.”
There figures to be plenty of teaching in the coming weeks as the Bruins navigate a schedule that includes games against No. 7 Oklahoma and Fresno State, which returns its starting quarterback from a 10-win team.
Kelly has a habit of not letting bad results in openers ruin seasons. His Ducks rebounded from that opening loss to Boise State in his head coaching debut in 2009 to reach the Rose Bowl.
The coach said he intended to remain positive despite the stumble.
“There’s a first for everybody, a first time for everything, and hopefully we can build upon that,” Kelly said. “Hopefully instead of looking at it as a negative, we’ll try to turn this thing into a positive.”
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Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch