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UCLA Sports

Column: UCLA’s masquerade as a winner ends after Utah exposes its true nature

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches from the sideline.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches from the sideline during the second half of the Bruins’ 49-3 loss to No. 7 Utah on Saturday.
(Rick Bowmer /Associated Press)

The inescapable conclusion, after seeing UCLA steamrolled 49-3 by smooth and powerful Utah on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, is that the Bruins are who we thought they were when they were 1-5 in early October, before they won three consecutive games and inserted themselves in the conversation about Pac-12 Conference South title contenders.

They are not ready for prime time, not ready to win the division, not able to take on a daunting opponent and find a way to prevail. Facing the biggest challenge of their season against the No. 7 Utes the Bruins failed miserably, giving up 49 points in a row and offering pitifully little resistance.

This was a step back for the Bruins, though coach Chip Kelly claimed he leaves others to measure progress or slippage. But quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season, believes it didn’t erase the gains the Bruins had made during that winning streak.

“I think the biggest thing for me and the rest of the leaders is to pick these guys’ heads up. A lot of our guys had their minds set on the Pac-12 championship after this week and I think that’s really what it was, we were looking too far ahead instead of focusing on the task at hand,” he said. “So I think now I see it as a very humbling moment for our team and so now we can finally lock in and get ready for SC,” next week at the Coliseum.

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Linebacker Lokeni Toailoa also had a sense that players were looking past Saturday’s game and to the USC game.

“All I know is we needed to stay in the present, which was Utah,” he said, “and it didn’t seem like we did a good job of that tonight.”

No kidding.

Thompson-Robinson was sacked twice on the Bruins’ opening possession and the Bruins had to settle for a field goal, the first of many occasions they had decent field position but couldn’t score.

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“You’ve got to get seven against a team like this. You can’t trade threes for sevens,” Kelly said.

After that, the team that had averaged 37 points per game in conference play and had scored 31 points or more in four consecutive games was held scoreless for the final 51 minutes 55 seconds. Thompson-Robinson was replaced by sophomore Austin Burton in the fourth quarter, but Burton fared no better than Thompson-Robinson and went three and out in his first series.

The offense had keyed UCLA’s three-game winning streak, amid signs of becoming as productive as Kelly’s old Oregon blur. They had averaged 478 yards in their previous six games after averaging 263.3 in the first three. On Saturday, that offense dissolved into an ugly, messy blot, sabotaging its cause time after time by fumbling and stumbling deep in Utah territory and totaling 269 yards.

Joshua Kelley, who had piled up more than 100 yards rushing in his previous three games, was held to 78 yards in 19 carries. The Bruins, who had gained 200 yards rushing or more in five consecutive games, were held to 50 yards rushing by a sharp and effective Utah defensive effort.

Highlights from Utah’s victory over UCLA on Saturday.

Thompson-Robinson fumbled twice and had two passes intercepted, reverting to the bad, old days of the Bruins’ shaky start to the season. He was sacked five times Saturday and had minus-26 yards rushing, and completed 20 of 36 passes for 219 yards.

“I think as a whole, the offense, I don’t think we were clicking tonight,” he said.

The Utes brought more pressure than other teams the Bruins had faced, Thompson-Robinson said, and they ratcheted up the pressure once they had initial success.

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“They’re just a tough, physical team,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and like I said before, they sent the house a couple of times and really put pressure in my face, so it was hard to get the ball out early. But I think again, it all comes down to us and how many mistakes we had on the ball.”

The Utes offense, led by Zack Moss’ 127 yards rushing and 73 yards receiving, repeatedly blew past would-be tacklers and found sizeable holes in UCLA’s coverage for big-yardage plays.

The biggest one, an 83-yard passing play from Tyler Huntley to a juking Samson Nacua with 9:39 left in the fourth quarter, meant nothing in terms of the outcome — the run and extra point padded Utah’s lead to 42-3 — but it typified everything that went so wrong for the Bruins (4-6, 4-3 in Pac-12 play) on a night they could have shown up but instead showed how far they must go to contend for supremacy in the division or the conference.

Once again they were the overwhelmed, under-talented team they had been in the early weeks of the season. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, though Kelly acknowledged that his team was responsible for many of those things that went wrong.

“We control how we play, so it’s not the football gods or anything like that,” he said.

“We didn’t play well against a really good football team.”

No, they didn’t. They didn’t come close to threatening Utah. They turned out to be who they were at the start of this season, and that’s not good for a team that needs to see growth and progress as much as it needs wins.

UCLA turned over the ball five times in its 49-3 loss to No. 7 Utah on Saturday, with three of the giveaways coming in the red zone.


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