If things play out as David Shaw envisions, UCLA-Stanford will become a twice-yearly affair.
“In the back of my head,” the Stanford coach said Saturday after the Cardinal held on for a breathless 49-42 triumph over the Bruins, “I truly believe this is the future Pac-12 championship game right here.”
Shaw wasn’t being facetious about the future of a UCLA team that finished the season with a 3-9 record. He said he could already see what’s taking hold under coach Chip Kelly after his first season with the Bruins.
“What he’s starting to do here, I’m really excited for him,” Shaw said. “Thankful that we won the game [Saturday], but give a lot of credit to him. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching these two teams play over the next few years.”
UCLA fans have already experienced a significant uptick in enjoyment after the team’s 0-5 start. The Bruins beat USC and remained competitive in every game except a blowout loss to Utah.
The Bruins sustained a nice rhythm on offense over the final half of the season, rolling up a season-high 528 yards against the Cardinal. They also never wavered in their effort, even after being winless into October almost assured them of a losing season.
“We’re trying to grow a young football team and that’s what these guys did,” Kelly said. “They learned how to compete every single week.”
Quarterback Wilton Speight said the team that walked off the field Saturday was “a completely different ballclub” than the one that entered the Rose Bowl to face Cincinnati for the season opener.
“That’s a testament to the coaching staff, the older guys with the leadership, and the young guys not saying, ‘Hey, OK, this is my first [season], we’ve only won three games, I can just write this off as a redshirt’ or ‘It doesn’t matter because I’ve got three more [years],’ ” Speight said.
“It was a collective effort all the way across the board in Wasserman [Football Center] and it made this year successful despite the win-loss column.”
Speight, a graduate transfer, is among a handful of players who won’t be back next season. UCLA’s roster featured only seven seniors and two graduate transfers, including one, offensive lineman Justin Murphy, who is petitioning the NCAA for another season of eligibility.
The Bruins could also get back several playmakers whose seasons were cut short by injuries, including linebackers Jaelan Phillips and Josh Woods. They could help address the team’s lack of a pass rush, one of its most glaring deficiencies.
“It’s something that we have to look at and work on in the offseason and make sure that we can do a better job generating a rush, so our [defensive backs] don’t have to cover for as long,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s impact went well beyond his slew of catchy motivational sayings. He increased player accountability by publicly announcing suspensions before and during the season, a tactic largely avoided by predecessor Jim Mora.
“Right when Chip walked in, he came in with instilling in us a growth mindset,” cornerback Darnay Holmes said. “There are going to be a lot of ups and downs in life and definitely on the field.”
Staying steady amid vacillating fortunes became a staple of the team’s approach.