When he was offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, Chip Kelly once ran the single-wing formation against Dartmouth as a tribute of sorts to the 100-year anniversary of the football rivalry between the schools.
Recently asked if he would bring back that archaic offense as part of UCLA’s centennial celebration, the Bruins coach prompted laughter from reporters when he responded with a terse “No.”
Kelly can run seemingly whatever he wants these days.
The latest offshoot of the pro-style, tight-end-heavy sets he brought to UCLA was a liberal sprinkling of the pistol formation last weekend against Arizona State. The pistol differs from the shotgun in that the running back lines up behind the quarterback as opposed to beside him, allowing a team to better disguise which way a play is headed.
“If you go pistol, you can kind of go both ways,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said, “so it kind of doesn’t give the defense the right look and kind of puts them at a disadvantage almost.”
The Bruins piled up 217 rushing yards and scored 42 points on the way to their second consecutive victory, the latest sign that Kelly hasn’t lost his offensive touch as some critics contended when the team remained stuck on 14 points in each of its nonconference games.
Aficionados might want to take notes on Kelly’s next move when UCLA (3-5 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) faces Colorado (3-5, 1-4) on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl with an opportunity to surpass last season’s victory total.
Since Pac-12 play started, no offense in the conference has been better. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 in points per game (38.2), yards per game (488.4), rushing yards per game (220.6), first downs per game (25.4) and are tied with Utah for the lead in third-down conversion success (48%) in conference games.
Kelly said his team’s heavy uptick in productivity has been largely a function of improved execution. He noted how Thompson-Robinson released the ball on one pass against Arizona State before receiver Kyle Philips had made the cut on his route, leading to a 20-yard touchdown shortly before halftime.
“They were on the same page about where they’re going to be and it was a bang-bang play right in the corner [of the end zone] and we ended up scoring and that’s what execution’s all about,” Kelly said. “I mean, you can draw lines on a paper and say, ‘Hey, this works versus this coverage and this works versus that coverage,’ but you have to go out and actually execute it, and the credit goes to the players.”
Kelly has increasingly drawn up plays involving Joshua Kelley in recent weeks since the running back returned to form following a preseason knee injury. The Bruins ran the ball a season-high 57 times against Arizona State, including 34 carries by Kelley. The return of running back Kazmeir Allen from an academic suspension and the ability of Thompson-Robinson to scramble for yardage on read-option plays also has bolstered the rushing attack.
The heavy reliance on the run led to two clock-gobbling drives in the first half that each encompassed 16 plays and kept UCLA’s defense fresh, resulting in its second consecutive strong performance.
UCLA has also benefited from a sturdy offensive line that since the start of Pac-12 play has given no indication of its youth. The Bruins’ starters on the line include sophomore right guard Christaphany Murray and freshman left tackle Sean Rhyan and left guard Duke Clemens.
“If I didn’t know them,” Thompson-Robinson said, “I wouldn’t know they were freshmen.”
Thompson-Robinson, a sophomore, also has come of age after some early season struggles, completing 61.7% of his passes in Pac-12 games with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s throwing to a dynamic stable of receivers that includes Demetric Felton Jr., whose 36 catches have tied a school record for a running back, and Kyle Philips, the slot receiver who has at least one touchdown catch in each of the last three games.
Thompson-Robinson said Kelly has contributed to the offensive surge by simplifying plays that are run over and over as part of the team’s unrelenting preparation.
“It’s more so about practice,” Thompson-Robinson said of the team’s success, “than it is on Saturday.”
Saturday is when the fun comes, Kelly’s resurgent offense making the skeptics finally stop asking when he might bring back the Oregon blur.
“It’s just kind of plugging and playing and finding out what your guys do well,” Kelly said of his play designs, “and try to play to their strengths.”