The chilly rain that fell most of the afternoon tapered off early in UCLA’s season finale against Cal, but the gloomy atmosphere that had settled over the Rose Bowl never lifted. Even the music played during the pregame recognition of the Bruins’ seniors had a somber tone. It was an odd note to strike during a supposed celebration but a sadly accurate reflection of the state of the program two years into Chip Kelly’s tenure as coach.
The Bruins’ 28-18 loss to Cal on Saturday night meant Kelly’s second season ended much as the first one did, with a few details altered. It ended with a losing record (4-8 overall and 4-5 in Pac-12 Conference play) and no bowl game invitation. Not that the Bruins deserved a bowl bid. It had become impossible, anyway, before they produced another disjointed performance against the bowl-bound Bears before an announced crowd of 38,102 die-hards.
Consider this: Cal (7-5, 4-5) had scored more points in only one other game this season. And consider this too: In the Bruins’ last three games, they gave up 129 points — 49 to Utah, 52 to USC and then 28 to the Bears.
Earlier this season, Kelly had said a team was what its record said it was. Reminded of that on Saturday — and of his 7-17 record as UCLA’s coach — he sidestepped the question of who and where the Bruins were after a season that was bracketed by a three-game losing streak at the beginning and another at the saggy, soggy end.
“I think this team is growing. I’ve watched all these guys that have responded to everything that they’ve faced during the season,” he said. “We knew going in the challenges we had. It was going to be a real young team and a lot of kids were going to have to get experience on the run, and I think the guys did that. I watched them ... grow as a group, and I think that’s part of what this process is all about.
“It’s obviously not what we want it to be, but I’ve seen improvement with these guys. There’s some young guys here that you’re really excited about what their future is.”
That improvement wasn’t obvious. The Bruins’ offense was slow to get going this season but picked up when conference play began, yet they scored only three points at Utah and only 18 against the Bears. After UCLA went 3-9 last season, hitting .500 this season would have been considered a success, but the Bruins were 1-5 before a sudden surge carried them to three straight wins over Stanford, Arizona State and Colorado. At 4-5, with hopes of a division title still alive, they promptly fell apart defensively and took themselves out of the running for anything but another disappointing season.
The end of the season was too recent for Kelly to say Saturday what changes he would implement defensively. “I think you’ve got to look at everything that goes on,” he said, “and we always assess everything after the season — scheme, personnel, everything.”
He plans to be part of that assessment, quashing reports that he would leave for an NFL job. “I don’t know where they came from, and I have not had any discussions with anybody,” he said. “We have a banquet [Sunday] 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.”
How long it will take to implement his plans remains unclear, but he must find a way to bring about dramatic improvement next season or the Chip Kelly era will be brief. “I don’t know what scale you’re looking for,” he said. “I just think 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, 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.”
Senior running back Joshua Kelley, who had 76 rushing yards and passed the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season, also says he sees better days ahead for the Bruins. Sitting beside fellow senior Josh Woods in a postgame interview session, Kelley said he wouldn’t take back anything about his time at UCLA and that being a Bruin helped him grow “as a man, as a person.”
He added, “I think it’s gonna be special for the young men coming up the next few years. There’s so many playmakers here. It’s gonna be awesome to see. I think it’s great that me and Josh [Woods] were a part of this and that we contributed to something special that’s coming.”
Kelley also said he believed Kelly could turn the program around. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in Coach Kelly and what he’s gonna do,” Kelley said. “Defense is gonna be great. There’s a lot of young guys, and now they’re gonna be older, they’re gonna be more experienced. So I have no doubt in my mind ... UCLA’s gonna be great these next two years. I just know it for sure, without a doubt.”
Kelley and Woods left the interview room with their arms resting on each other’s shoulders, a poignant sight that was repeated often Saturday night. After the game ended, many players stayed on the field to pose for photos with friends and embrace one last time this season, or one last time as Bruins. It was a somber ending, one we’ve seen before. It’s up to Kelly to make sure that ending changes next season.