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Column: Where’s the progress? Chip Kelly’s second season at UCLA begins with a whimper

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tries to fend off Cincinnati cornerback Coby Bryant during the second half of the Bruins’ 24-14 loss Thursday.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tries to fend off Cincinnati cornerback Coby Bryant during the second half of the Bruins’ 24-14 loss Thursday.
(Associated Press)

This was not supposed to be the same UCLA football team that won three games last season.

This was not supposed to be the same young group that struggled in the new system of celebrated coach Chip Kelly.

Charging into Nippert Stadium for the nationally televised season opener Thursday against Cincinnati, this version of the Bruins promised they would be different.

Sure enough, they were.

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They were — gulp — worse.

Their performance in a 24-14 loss to the Bearcats of the American Athletic Conference was so unsightly, the stadium’s audio folks bid them farewell by tauntingly playing, “California Love.”

The defeat was so complete, the hordes of black-shirted fans sitting above the door to the Bruins locker room did not troll, choosing instead to sympathetically stare down at the conquered as they trudged away from another nightmare.

The Bruins can’t run the ball and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has four turnovers in 24-14 loss to Cincinnati in season opener.

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Last season this space questioned Kelly’s early impact after he began his UCLA career with a nine-point loss to Cincinnati at the Rose Bowl.

Now, a year later, same opponent, worse loss, and what am I supposed to write? How are Bruins fans supposed to feel? What exactly is Chip Kelly doing, and when will it start to be worth the $23.3 million he is being paid to do it?

“Every loss is disappointing, I don’t quantify them,” Kelly said afterward in a tunnel filled with blue-clad kids slogging silently to the buses.

Except this one was particularly ominous, because this game was supposed to be noticeably promising.

Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II is upended by UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock.
Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II is upended by UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock, bottom, after getting past Elijah Gates during Thursday’s game.
(Associated Press)

This was going to be the coming-out party for quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had spent one season under Kelly and now was ready to use that education to …

Nope. Didn’t happen. He dropped the ball twice, threw two interceptions, watched his four turnovers lead to three Bearcat touchdowns, and completed just eight of 26 passes.

“Obviously very disappointing, not just because we didn’t get the win, but to see these guy’s faces in the locker room,” Thompson-Robinson said afterward. “We work really hard, and I care so much about these guys and just to see their faces is really disappointing.”

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This was also going to be a display of the offensive growth from everyone under Kelly — the Bruins were finally going to start resembling those great Oregon teams and …

Nope. That also didn’t happen. UCLA gained just 218 yards while rushing for just 62 yards — 1.7 yards per carry — with a ground game that stubbornly utilized undersized receiver Demetric Felton in place of injured Joshua Kelley.

Joshua Kelley, Theo Howard and Darnay Holmes don’t play in the Bruins’ 24-14 loss to Cincinnati after dealing with training camp injuries.

Where was that famous Chip Kelly hurry-up attack? Where is the speed? Where is the deception? How about the innovation?

For a second consecutive season, the Bruins offense looked lost and confused and eventually slowed to a crawl. Kelly has had a year to put his mark on this team — where is that mark?
“It’s a good litmus test for you. Hopefully you build from here,” Kelly said, noting the Bruins have 87 freshmen and sophomores on the team. “Hopefully they grow from this experience, that’s what it’s all about.”

Kudos to Kelly for patiently and amicably answering every postgame question, but, goodness, aren’t these the same answers we heard throughout last year?

This was also supposed to be a game that highlighted improvement from a defense that lost one full-time starter, these Bruins showing how they were feeding off Kelly’s famed discipline and …

Nope again. The Bruins allowed the Bearcats to gain 417 yards on plowing runs and passes to receivers who seemed to spend the entire game uncovered. It was as if they couldn’t make any adjustments.

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“Nobody drowned, nobody went down today, a couple of guys weren’t swimming the way they should have swum, but that’s our job as coaches to get them back on track.”
Chip Kelly, UCLA football coach

Throughout the night, facing rising star Cincinnati boss Luke Fickell, it was as if Kelly’s crew was — dare we say it — completely outcoached.

Kelly continues to push the narrative of youth and development. Maybe by the end of this second season, that will start to make sense. But right now, it sounds like a tired sequel.

“I’ve seen a ton of these guys grow,” Kelly said, adding that his kids were being thrown into deep water by opening on the road against an 11-win team from last season. “Nobody drowned, nobody went down today, a couple of guys weren’t swimming the way they should have swum, but that’s our job as coaches to get them back on track.”

UCLA wide receiver Chase Cota scores a touchdown against Cincinnati during the second half of the Bruins’ loss Thursday.
UCLA wide receiver Chase Cota scores a touchdown against Cincinnati during the second half of the Bruins’ loss Thursday.
(Associated Press)

They better start doing some serious splashing. After the Rose Bowl opener against San Diego State on Sept. 7 — anybody want to guess the number of empty seats? — the Bruins host highly ranked Oklahoma.

It’s not a good early look for a coach who, one game into his second season, already has 10 losses. Jim Mora didn’t lose his 10th game until his third season. Terry Donahue didn’t lose his 10th game until his fourth season.

Yes, the Bruins were hurt Thursday by injury-related absences of their two best offensive players and their best defensive player, with Kelley and Theo Howard and Darnay Holmes not playing. But Cincinnati was missing its best defensive player in safety James Wiggins, and it’s hard to believe Kelly’s teams cannot equal the Bearcats in depth.

This game hurt the Bruins from the first moment, when, on their first possession, Thompson-Robinson lost the ball on the Cincinnati nine-yard line, with the recovering Bearcats driving down to take a lead they never lost.

UCLA running back Demetric Felton tries to push for more yards during Thursday’s loss to Cincinnati.
UCLA running back Demetric Felton tries to push for more yards during Thursday’s loss to Cincinnati.
(Getty Images)

This game hurt the Bruins in the final moments, when Thompson-Robinson lost another fumble deep in Cincinnati territory to essentially clinch it.

This game will keep hurting until the Bruins can prove that they are not headed toward another 3-9 debacle, at which point maybe Kelly can start proving that his UCLA hiring will live up to the hype.

“We always preach, ‘On to the next play,’” Thompson-Robinson said. “So-what-now-what type of deal.”

Don’t agree with the “So what.”

All in on the, “Now what?”


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