While its offensive and defensive identities remain a bewildering blob under coach Chip Kelly, UCLA has preserved one recurring theme amid a winless start.
The Bruins are playing flag football.
They were called for a facemask, an illegal formation, holding and a personal foul Saturday … and that was just in the first quarter.
UCLA finished its 38-14 loss to Fresno State at the Rose Bowl with a season-worst 11 penalties for 96 yards. Three of the penalties helped sustain Bulldogs scoring drives and two pushed UCLA back on consecutive plays in the third quarter with the Bruins trying to drive for a go-ahead score.
UCLA eventually punted and Fresno State scored the game’s final 22 points.
“Too many times we were inflicting lost yardage on ourselves,” Kelly said afterward. “Those are things we have to clean up. We did not.”
The Bruins (0-3) committed five penalties on defense, four on offense and two on special teams, including the dreaded five men in the backfield infraction.
Even though UCLA committed six penalties in each of its first two games, Kelly said last week that he was pleased the Bruins had largely avoided the types of infractions in Week 2 that they had committed in their opener.
But his team triggered a smorgasbord of penalties versus the Bulldogs, including pass interference, illegal motion, false start and a roughing-the-passer call against Quentin Lake that the safety did not contest.
“You always want to get the big hit on the quarterback,” Lake said, “but it’s kind of a gray area of when you should let off and when you should really keep going.”
Penalties were a nagging problem under former UCLA coach Jim Mora, and little has changed in the early going under his successor. The Bruins are tied for No. 95 nationally with 7.6 penalties per game and rank No. 87 with 66.3 penalty yards per game.
“Those are things that when we watch tape, we’ve got to coach our guys up,” Kelly said. “What do the officials see and why do they call that penalty and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Run for it
Martell Irby and Soso Jamabo are in, and Joshua Kelley and Brandon Stephens are out.
Irby followed his strong showing late in the game against Oklahoma with a team-high nine carries for 35 yards against Fresno State. Jamabo had four carries for 12 yards in his season debut after sitting out the Bruins’ first two games while suspended for violating unspecified athletic department rules.
Kazmeir Allen and Bolu Olorunfunmi also remain in the mix. Allen’s speed makes him a versatile asset and Olorunfunmi has thrived in short-yardage opportunities, including a first-and-goal situation in the third quarter Saturday in which he ran for a two-yard touchdown.
“There is certain things that all those guys do well,” Kelly said, “and we’re just trying to play to their strengths.”
Meanwhile, Kelley went from six carries against Cincinnati to five against Oklahoma to none against Fresno State. Stephens has not logged one carry this season.
Collectively, the Bruins continue to struggle to run the ball. They managed 119 yard rushing and 3.8 yards per carry against the Bulldogs, giving them season averages of 130 yards rushing and 3.5 yards per carry.
The lack of a reliable run game is the primary culprit for an offense that is averaging only 17.3 points per game, ranking No. 119 nationally.
“We need to sustain drives and to sustain drives, you need to run the football,” Kelly said. “So we need to do a better job up front and we need to do a better job at the running back spot.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch