UCLA’s struggles will be a national spectacle against Oklahoma

UCLA QB Dorian Thomposon-Robinson unloads while evading the San Diego State rush last Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson throws a pass while evading the San Diego State rush last Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Keeping things to themselves is no longer an option.

UCLA’s issues will be resolved or accentuated quite publicly Saturday evening after the Bruins’ latest slow start has left the team a source of intrigue for all the wrong reasons.

A national television audience and presumably at least a handful of fans at the Rose Bowl will receive the latest accounting, good or bad, when UCLA (0-2) faces No. 5 Oklahoma (2-0) as a 23½-point underdog. It sounded earlier this week as if the Bruins’ players-only meeting that was called after their second consecutive loss had left them on the verge of a major turnaround or a steep descent into oblivion.

“It’s a long season,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said when asked what he would say to fans about the team’s early struggles. “Would you rather be 0-12 or 10-2?”


The Bruins had pledged to talk less and work more after a season-opening loss to Cincinnati that came following a summer of self-promoting YouTube videos and a vow from linebacker Krys Barnes to “shock the world.”

But more chatter was needed after an equally infuriating setback against San Diego State last weekend. Cornerback Darnay Holmes called a players-only meeting Sunday in which a host of veterans spoke about accountability amid the team’s second consecutive 0-2 start.

“We gotta look at ourselves in the mirror,” Thompson-Robinson said of the message, “and not kind of blame other things.”

Cornerback Jay Shaw acknowledged there was some validity to the criticism the team had absorbed. Among the questions facing the Bruins: Can they go one game without multiple fumbles? Why can’t they make stops on third down? What happened to coach Chip Kelly’s offense?

Struggling to draw crowds to the Rose Bowl, UCLA is offering four free tickets for the Oklahoma game to season-seat holders who attended last week’s home game.

Thompson-Robinson said the team maintained its faith in Kelly’s offense even though it’s generated just 14 points and 239.5 yards per game this season.

“We trust in him,” Thompson-Robinson said. “We trust in this offensive staff that they’ll put us in the best positions so we just gotta go out there and make more plays.”

Fans don’t seem to be as patient with a coach who is 3-11 at UCLA and 5-25 in his last 30 games going back to his final season with the San Francisco 49ers. The crowd of 36,951 last weekend at the Rose Bowl could be described as a friends-and-family gathering, and the crowd on Saturday is expected to consist of almost as many Oklahoma fans as UCLA fans.

There could be universal admiration for Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts, whose 591 yards passing this season easily exceeds the Bruins’ 479 yards of total offense. Hurts could become the third consecutive Oklahoma quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy and the second straight to orchestrate a blowout victory over UCLA after Kyler Murray passed for 306 yards and three touchdowns last season during the Sooners’ 49-21 triumph.

That game also marked the first college start for Thompson-Robinson, who did not appear overmatched while guiding the Bruins to a touchdown on their opening drive. Thompson-Robinson finished that game with 254 yards passing, but his uneven progression over the last year has mirrored that of his team.

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The sophomore has started this season completing just 52.5% of his passes for 355 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, giving him a quarterback rating of 21.8 that puts him No. 121 nationally.

Noting the number of players still learning on the job, Kelly continued to reference the need for patience with his young team. He mentioned the makeup of his roster with the regularity of a salesperson seeking a commission.

UCLA is a three-touchdown underdog for its game Saturday with No. 5 Oklahoma. The Bruins will have to contain Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts to have a chance.

“When you’ve got 87 freshmen and sophomores,” Kelly said, “it’s still a young group so every day is a new day for them.”

One benefit of having so much youth, Kelly said, is that the players don’t dwell on defeats and are constantly looking ahead to their next game. But they also have a limited pool of experience to draw from while seeking improvement.

“You don’t have the ability to have hindsight when you just got here,” Kelly said. “These guys can’t say, ‘Hey, when we were 0-2 a couple years ago.’ ”

Actually, there’s no need to go back that far. The Bruins held the same record a year ago on the way to an 0-5 start. They hope what happens Saturday will give them something else to talk about.