UCLA held players-only meeting after opening season with two losses

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs away from the pressure by San Diego State defensive end Myles Cheatum on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The message came with a special delivery.

By the players, for the players.

One by one, the UCLA Bruins spoke Sunday, attempting to steel themselves from the doubt seeping in amid a here-we-go-again start. The team has lost its first two games for a second consecutive season while falling to 0-6 in August and September under coach Chip Kelly, leading to an avalanche of criticism.

“People start listening to outside noise,” cornerback Jay Shaw said, “so if you don’t, like, get that togetherness, you never know what the man next to you is thinking or what he’s reading.”

Cornerback Darnay Holmes, who sat out the Bruins’ first two games with an ankle injury, convened the players-only meeting with hopes of galvanizing a team getting savaged by traditional media and social media alike.

Holmes, kicker J.J. Molson, defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa, linebackers Lokeni and Leni Toailoa and running back Joshua Kelley were among those who spoke.

The gist of what was said surprised no one.

“Basically,” Shaw said, “just winning.”

Coach Chip Kelly says the Bruins suffered a hangover effect from their opening loss to Cincinnati and it affected their practices for the San Diego State game.


Immediate success would involve an upset of epic proportions. UCLA will be a three-touchdown underdog Saturday at the Rose Bowl when it plays No. 5 Oklahoma (2-0), which has won 20 consecutive road games and beat the Bruins by 28 points last season in Norman.

Expectations among fans have been lowered after the Bruins opened the season with losses to Cincinnati and San Diego State, teams with far lesser pedigrees than the Sooners.

“A lot of people trying to pull us down,” Shaw said, “so we really gotta focus on ourselves and coming together because at the end of the day, we’re all we got.”

The most common refrain Shaw has heard among fans: Is this a repeat of last season, when the Bruins lost their first five games and finished 3-9?

His response? No way.

“No one wants to have a losing record,” Shaw said. “Nobody wants to be known as a loser.”

Shaw called the last two days of practice a considerable improvement over last week, when the team slogged its way through sessions, leading to a sluggish showing during its first-ever loss to San Diego State.

Some frustration showed early in practice Tuesday, when defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads called out defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia for failing to complete a drill.

“Tito!” Rhoads yelled from across the field. “I know you skipped that tackle, Tito! You skipped that tackle!”

Mark Saltveit believes some of the NFL-level complexity UCLA coach Chip Kelly deploys doesn’t mesh well with the college game.

Ogbonnia’s inattentiveness enraged defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase, who unleashed an unintelligible high-pitched rant that he punctuated by pounding the back of a blocking sled with his massive hand.

Mastering details was among the talking points Sunday, when players discussed problems with tackling, penalties and communication that were rampant in their first two games. Cornerback Elijah Gates said the Bruins were receptive to harsh words from themselves but not outsiders.

“I feel like I’m my biggest critic,” said Gates, who was twice called for pass interference and once for defensive holding Saturday, “so I really don’t pay attention to all the noise.”

Shaw acknowledged the difficulty in staying off social media among players addicted to Twitter and Instagram, but offered a solution for those confronted by nasty posts.

“Just keep on scrolling, keep on scrolling and live your life,” he said.

Some of the negativity could help, Shaw said, because “there’s still some truth to it” that could be embraced.

“Instead of being like, ‘Ah, they’re talking bad about my game,’” Shaw said, “I could focus on what are they talking about and see how I could get better at it.”

If nothing else, talking among themselves had made the Bruins feel like somebody shared their pain.

“At the end of the day,” Gates said, “that’s what’s going to push us further, just the chemistry between all of us.”