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Just win, baby? Success will be needed to sustain UCLA’s Chip Kelly era

UCLA running back Brittain Brown runs for a touchdown past California safety Elijah Hicks.
UCLA running back Brittain Brown runs tfor a touchdown past California safety Elijah Hicks during the second half at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 15.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

The offense is productive, the defense vastly improved, the trajectory pointed upward all the way around.

The record? That remains abysmal.

UCLA isn’t going to impress anyone under coach Chip Kelly until the Bruins start winning more games. Competitive losses and objective potential don’t amount to cold, congealed Thanksgiving leftovers when you’re 1-2 in 2020 and 8-19 since the start of 2018.

Kelly knows as much. Just listen to what he said in September 2019 after a loss to San Diego State.

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“You’re as good as what your record says you are,” Kelly said.

Eight wins in three seasons isn’t good. Far from it. The Bruins will remain headed for historic ineptitude unless they reverse course starting Saturday at the Rose Bowl against an opponent that can relate to their struggles.

UCLA’s new attacking defense has ranked as some of the best this season.

Arizona (0-2) has lost nine consecutive games as part of the worst funk in program history and might somehow be worse than its record suggests after falling behind 37-0 against Washington last weekend.

Any path to UCLA posting its first winning season under Kelly probably starts with a victory over the Wildcats. The Bruins are 10-point favorites even with lingering uncertainty at quarterback, meaning they’re expected to win regardless of whether Dorian Thompson-Robinson is cleared to emerge from coronavirus quarantine and take the first snap.

“I mean, a win would always be great, but we just keep fighting every single day,” UCLA linebacker Carl Jones said. “We don’t even look at our losses, really, we just learn from them and we just move forward each day at practice.”

Lesson No. 1: Stop turning the ball over.

The Bruins have four turnovers in each of their losses, compared with just one in their victory over California. They’ve generated just two takeaways, meaning they are losing the turnover battle, 9-2.

Kelly listed turnovers among the “self-inflicted wounds” that have kept his team from posting a winning record despite its otherwise improved play. Their offense is averaging 37 points per game and their defense is no longer hemorrhaging yards.

“We just need to continue to minimize the mistakes and accentuate, really, the positive things,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of really positive things that are going on out there; it hasn’t shown on the scoreboard.”

UCLA heads into Saturday’s game against Arizona looking to build on its encouraging performance against Oregon last week.

Kelly said his team was not demoralized, noting that players were energized by their near-upset of Oregon last weekend that fell short only after wide receiver Kyle Philips was unable to haul in a fourth-down pass.

“They wanted to go back out on the field and play again,” Kelly said. “Their mindset was, let’s keep playing.”

At some point, the Bruins will have to win to keep Kelly as their coach. Saturday would be as good a time as any to start their salvage efforts.

Win, and the Bruins are back to .500 for only the second time in the Kelly era with a chance to nudge themselves above that threshold for the first time next weekend with a victory over Arizona State.

Win, and Kelly’s bamboo metaphor about imperceptible growth might be coming into play, a roster sprouting, a corner turned.

The Bruins have reached this precipice twice before, only to awkwardly stumble.

UCLA linebacker Caleb Johnson has earned a reputation for ruthless efficiency, something he developed during his playing days at Fullerton College.

They looked like they had found their footing at the end of Kelly’s first season, beating USC and nearly ending a decade’s worth of futility against Stanford during a narrow loss. Then they dropped their first three games of 2019.

There was more promise midway through last season, when the Bruins won three consecutive games. It led to more disappointment when they got smacked around during season-ending losses to Utah, USC and California.

As Kelly sized up his team, he saw one on the verge of being outfitted for something besides another letdown.

“If their attitudes continue to be the way they are and their efforts continue to be the way they are,” Kelly said, “then I’m really excited about the direction that this group is going.”


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