For weeks, UCLA coach Chip Kelly had raved about the good health of his team.
Joshua Kelley suffered a knee injury early in training camp but was going to play in the season opener, Kelly insisted.
Darnay Holmes was not spotted on the field at practice for two days this week, but Kelly maintained it was no big deal and that Holmes was available.
Theo Howard would play with a splint on the injured right wrist that had slowed him in training camp, Kelly contended.
None of them played Thursday.
Their absences deprived the Bruins of their top two offensive players and top defensive player during a 24-14 loss to Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium.
“A couple of those guys practiced two or three days this week,” Kelly said, “but we made the decision we weren’t going to put them out there if they weren’t 100%. That wouldn’t have been fair to the player and we’re always going to err on the side of safety.”
Kelley’s absence was most acutely felt because UCLA also played without sophomore running back Kazmeir Allen, who sat out because of academic issues that have made his status uncertain for the Bruins’ game Sept. 7 against San Diego State.
The Bruins turned almost exclusively to redshirt junior Demetric Felton at running back, with mixed results. Felton gained 71 yards in 23 carries, averaging only3.1 yards per attempt, though he did contribute his team’s offensive highlight when he scored on a 75-yard catch and run in the second quarter.
UCLA’s secondary struggled without Holmes, continually giving up yardage to open receivers. Jay Shaw replaced Holmes in the starting lineup and made his first career interception near the end of the first half, returning it 66 yards.
The Bruins also were without left guard Michael Alves because of a back injury and left tackle Alec Anderson as he continued to recover from leg surgery.
Redshirt freshman Jon Goines II replaced Alves, making his first career start, and true freshman Sean Rhyan made his college debut by replacing Anderson. UCLA’s offensive line gave two sacks.
Kelley had returned to practice more than a week before the opener and appeared to move well despite wearing a knee brace. Howard moved out of a yellow noncontact jersey and into the blue jerseys worn by the offense around the same time.
Kelly acknowledged that Jaylen Erwin would start over Howard but said Howard would be available. Erwin had three catches for 37 yards.
Nearly two years after he last played in a game, Josh Woods was back.
The senior linebacker contributed almost immediately, wrapping up Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder for a two-yard gain on the game’s second play. He finished with six tackles.
Woods acknowledged being nervous because his teammates kept reminding him of his return after sitting out much of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury and the entire 2018 season with a knee injury. Then it was just football again.
“Once I made that first tackle,” Woods said, “that was when I was really like, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ ”
Mick Cronin didn’t make it home to watch his alma mater play his new employer. UCLA’s new basketball coach had something more pressing.
His daughter, Sammi, was starting school at Campbell Hall in Studio City.
“I couldn’t miss that,” said Cronin, the Cincinnati native who graduated from his hometown school and coached the Bearcats’ basketball team for 13 seasons before taking the UCLA job in April.
Cronin watched the game on his backyard big-screen television in Encino after attending Bruins’ football practice earlier in the week. Whom did he root for?
“The good guys,” Cronin cracked before acknowledging that he was now a Bruin all the way.
As expected, UCLA played without linebackers Tyree Thompson (foot surgery) and Keisean Lucier-South, its top returning pass rusher who is expected to miss at least three games because of academic issues. … UCLA played four true freshmen one year after it played 12 in the opening loss to Cincinnati at the Rose Bowl.