Chip Kelly and UCLA need a win against San Diego State, no matter the reason

UCLA coach Chip Kelly coaches the Bruins against Cincinnati on Aug. 29 at Nippert Stadium.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

Rocky Long is running the spread offense and Chip Kelly is running something far more plodding than his famed blur.

It may be impossible to tell Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl which coach is known as the master innovator and which has a reputation as more old-fashioned than leather helmets.

There’s no question who is more in need of a victory.

Kelly’s UCLA Bruins dropped their opener again and appeared to have regressed in doing so, raising concerns about what exactly they’ve been doing the last nine months.

A loss to San Diego State in their home opener would prompt more fan angst, not to mention worries about another 0-5 start with No. 4 Oklahoma and consecutive road games to start Pac-12 Conference play next up on the schedule.


Kelly isn’t parsing all the reasons why his team needs its first victory of 2019 after going just 3-10 with the Bruins.

“There’s no reason to try to justify, ‘Well, it would be a good reason to have a win because of this,’” said Kelly, who is still searching for his first UCLA triumph before mid-October. “It’s good to have a win and that’s what our whole plan is, is to win every game we play and we don’t put any quantification on, ‘We want to win because of this’ or ‘This will give us this.’ … We don’t quantify what the reason is for the win, we just want to win.”

UCLA (0-1) has enjoyed almost a century’s worth of success against the Aztecs since the first meeting between the teams in 1922, going 21-0-1, including 13-0 as the home team.

The Bruins averaged 51,164 fans at home games in 2018, lowest since 1999. Three straight losing seasons and competition from other sports are factors.

But San Diego State (1-0) is easily the more prosperous of the programs in recent years. The Aztecs have gone 29-12 since the start of the 2016 season, winning four of five games against Pac-12 Conference teams, compared to UCLA’s 13-25 record over that same stretch.

Long discarded the I formation he had long favored before this season and moved to the spread, hoping to capitalize on the system that quarterback Ryan Agnew ran in high school. The coach emphasized that the Aztecs would still lean heavily on the running game, which generated 130 of their 238 yards of offense during a season-opening 6-0 victory over Weber State, a Football Championship Subdivision team.

Kelly said that Long’s familiarity with his old system would give him the option to go back to it at any point.

“You’re not sure what you’re going to get in our game,” Kelly said, “but usually they’re an I-formation team with multiple tight ends and fullbacks and going to run the football, that’s kind of their mind-set.”

It was hard to say what UCLA was running against Cincinnati, other than an offense that sputtered. The Bruins abandoned the pre-snap sideline checks that had helped them pile up yardage and points toward the end of last season, leading to little of either during a 24-14 loss in which they managed just 218 yards of offense.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson shouldered much of the blame after losing two fumbles and having two passes intercepted, but his teammates acknowledged that the struggles were universal.

“Everybody lost,” receiver Jaylen Erwin said. “I got a L, Coach Kelly got a L, all the players got a L, the whole staff got a L, it’s not just on one player.”

Thompson-Robinson’s quarterback rating of 12.5 stood as the fifth-worst in the nation after the season’s opening week. The quarterback one spot above him, with a 13.1 rating? Agnew, who completed 16 of 30 passes for 108 yards without a touchdown or an interception against Weber State.

San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew
San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew completed 16 of 30 passes for 108 yards without a touchdown or an interception last week against Weber State.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Bruins’ best hope at bouncing back could be a return of running back Joshua Kelley and receiver Theo Howard, both of whom sat out the opener because of lingering injuries. They practiced this week but had also done so in the days before the game against Cincinnati, adding to the uncertainty about their status.

While Kelly isn’t interested in the semantics of securing his team’s first victory, his players realize the importance of not letting their recent history repeat itself.

“We’re definitely not trying to have a season like last year, anything close to that at all,” defensive lineman Atonio Mafi said, “so getting this one would mean a lot.”