This was not the kind of familiarity Chip Kelly sought in his return to Autzen Stadium.
The coach known for winning big at Oregon watched his new team commit a string of blunders that have seemed stuck on repeat for weeks.
The story is always the same. Missed tackles, dropped passes, penalties and special teams breakdowns doomed UCLA on (insert day of the week here) against (insert opponent here) during a (insert final score here) defeat.
The latest sad-sack scenario resulted in an early three-touchdown deficit that led to the Bruins’ 42-21 loss to the Ducks on Saturday, giving Kelly’s team as many losses in his first season as he had in four seasons at Oregon.
“I just think we didn’t fight hard enough,” UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley said after his career-high 161 rushing yards were relegated to a footnote. “I mean, too many mistakes, too many penalties. It just sucks because I know this was homecoming [for Kelly] and we actually wanted to win it for him.”
The comedy of errors reached blooper-reel proportions in the fourth quarter when the Bruins lined up for a field goal but were missing one essential ingredient: their kicker.
Holder Matt Lynch held out his arms, apparently wondering why kicker J.J. Molson wasn’t standing directly behind him. Molson trotted onto the field at the last moment but the snap was high, forcing Lynch to take off running in desperation before being stopped well short of a first down.
A back-to-the future feel became painfully literal for UCLA when the teams had to replay the end of the third quarter after an official’s review overruled what had been previously called a catch by Oregon. The replay went for a 10-yard completion.
“I think the special teams was the biggest thing tonight,” said Kelly, who received a warm reception from the crowd when welcomed back by the P.A. announcer before the game. “We weren’t very good in the kicking game and you have to be good in the kicking game in this league to win. I think that was the big difference.”
There was more bad news in the injury department after UCLA (2-7 overall, 2-4 Pac-12 Conference) lost its starting quarterback for the third time this season. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, making his first start since going down with a shoulder injury last month, was knocked out again in the third quarter on a play when he had the ball stripped on a sack.
Thompson-Robinson was spotty before his departure, completing nine of 23 passes for 135 yards and one touchdown with one interception.
Wilton Speight replaced Thompson-Robinson for the second time in three weeks but could not engineer the same sort of magic he did in a comeback victory over Arizona. Speight was relatively efficient, completing 13 of 25 passes for 147 yards and one touchdown without an interception in less than a half to help the Bruins roll up a season-high 496 yards of offense.
It didn’t matter because his team’s deficit was too big.
Kelly said his team was so short-handed that it was down to 60 available scholarship players, forcing the Bruins to bring injured players because it couldn’t even fill out the travel roster.
“Part of the issue is we’re playing new guys and a lot of guys are getting baptism under fire and we’re learning on the run,” Kelly said.
UCLA’s 11 penalties for 64 yards hurt in various ways. They negated a touchdown catch by Caleb Wilson on offensive pass interference and pushed Molson back five yards on a false start for a second straight week, leading to another long field goal that fell just short.
Oregon received strong bounce-back performances from quarterback Justin Herbert and receiver Dillon Mitchell, who were in the concussion protocol earlier this week after being hurt against Arizona. Herbert completed 18 of 32 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns. Mitchell was on the receiving end of both scoring passes and finished with 156 yards.
The Ducks (6-3, 3-3) persevered even with tailback C.J. Verdell being lost to injury in the third quarter after gaining 90 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, UCLA continually backslid on its uphill climb.
“I just think if we started off the game faster, who knows where we could have gone with it?” Kelley said. “I definitely think from that perspective we could have fought better.”
UP NEXT >>> Arizona State coach Herm Edwards, widely lampooned at the time of his hiring, has the Sun Devils (5-4 overall, 3-3 Pac-12 Conference) in the thick of the crazy South Division race after a 38-20 victory over Utah on Saturday.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch