It was a dreary ending to another sad UCLA season, drizzle slickening a mostly empty Rose Bowl on a night the game-time temperature was 49 degrees.
Cold reality continued to envelope the Bruins on Saturday.
The developments on the field weren’t any more uplifting, UCLA suffering a 28-18 setback against California to complete its fourth straight losing season and second in a row under coach Chip Kelly.
Kelly’s team finished with a 4-8 record one year after going 3-9, hardly the results UCLA’s fan base expected from a coach who had once taken Oregon to four major bowl games in as many seasons.
Kelly said he was not discouraged by the results, describing his commitment to the Bruins as “the same since I’ve been here; it’s been 100%.” He also rebutted media reports that he might head back to the NFL as an offensive coordinator.
“I don’t know where they came from and I have not had any discussions with anybody,” Kelly said of the reports. “We have a banquet tomorrow at 1 o’clock and we’ll see our seniors off in a manner that they should be seen off and then we hit the ground recruiting, so that’s kind of our plan.”
The Bruins (4-8, 4-5) started and ended the season with three-game losing streaks, failing to replicate their late-season surge from a year ago. UCLA’s defense was the primary culprit during the latter skid, giving up an average of 43 points over that span and raising questions about whether defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro should be allowed to return in 2020.
Kelly would not discuss whether he was contemplating any changes on his defensive staff.
“You’ve got to look at everything that goes on and we always assess everything after the season — scheme, personnel, everything,” Kelly said. “We’ll look at everything. We’re always trying to improve and trying to make ourselves better. This isn’t the time to talk about anything like that.”
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson returned from the injury that had knocked him out of the game against USC last week only to absorb more blows and leave after getting hurt again with about four minutes left.
He was constantly on the run, getting sacked five times for 39 yards in losses, while completing 23 of 39 passes for 278 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
The Bruins suffered one final humiliation in the final minute when running back Demetric Felton Jr. was stuffed for a three-yard loss on fourth and one at the Cal two-yard line.
Cal entered the game with the worst offense in the Pac-12 but appeared plenty capable against the Bruins. Golden Bears quarterback Chase Garbers passed for 230 yards and one touchdown against an overmatched secondary and running back Christopher Brown Jr. ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
Brown’s spinning 10-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the Golden Bears (7-5, 4-5) a 28-18 lead that provided more than enough cushion on a night the Bruins’ injury-plagued offense reverted to its bad early season form.
It was an unhappy sendoff for Bruins senior running back Joshua Kelley, who ran for 76 yards and a touchdown in 19 carries in his final college game. Kelley made the game’s first memorable play when he hurdled Cal safety Jaylinn Hawkins near the end of a 20-yard run that pushed him over 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season.
That play ended up being more than a footnote when Thompson-Robinson capped the drive by throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Erwin for the game’s first points.
“It feels pretty cool because there have been so many incredible running backs here,” Kelley said of being the eighth UCLA player to reach that milestone in back-to-back seasons. “You’ve got coach [DeShaun] Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew, you have just so many incredible backs here. And maybe something I’m gonna reflect about it, you know, I know I didn’t win as much as those guys and that’s something I really wish I could do, just contribute to more wins for this program but I think it’s pretty cool that someday I’m gonna see my name listed with some of those guys.”
UCLA’s beleaguered defense held firm until Cal receiver Makai Polk took a screen pass from Garbers late in the first quarter and picked up a couple of nice blocks on the way to a 44-yard touchdown catch that tied the score.
Cal surged ahead 14-7 early in the second quarter when Garbers crossed the goal line on a one-yard quarterback sneak and the Golden Bears never relinquished the lead.
Predictably, there were large expanses of open seats on a night the conditions were less than ideal and the outcome held no real significance.
The announced crowd of 38,102 gave the Bruins a record low for average attendance at the stadium they have called home since 1982. Their average of 43,848 fans for games at the Rose Bowl broke the previous low of 49,107 set in 1995.
Those who did come cheered the 15 Bruins who were introduced beforehand as part of their final college game.
The departing players were flanked by two lines of teammates as they walked to embrace Kelly. Senior linebacker Krys Barnes did not play after suffering a knee injury against USC.
Thompson-Robinson had to play behind two second-string offensive linemen after center Boss Tagaloa went down in the first quarter and left guard Duke Clemens limped off the field in the third quarter. Sam Marrazzo took over at center and Jon Gaines II at left guard.
Another Bruin went down late in the third quarter when receiver Chase Cota caught the ball at Cal’s one-yard line and had to be helped off the field. On the next play, Kelley ran for a one-yard touchdown and the Bruins pulled within 21-18 after Delon Hurt caught a pass in the back of the end zone on the two-point conversion.
There wouldn’t be anything else to celebrate besides the end of the misery.
But Kelly maintained he had seen growth in a team that could return as many as nine starters on offense and seven on defense. Their ranks will be bolstered by a recruiting class that’s currently ranked No. 31 nationally and fifth in the Pac-12, according to 247 Sports.
“I’ve seen young players that played a lot of football for us this year that grew and took advantage of the opportunities they had,” Kelly said, “and you’re excited to come back when we get a chance to get to spring ball and coach these guys up. And I know through the experience they had and how they really progressed during the season that I’m excited about what the future is, to be honest with you.”