Final game could show that UCLA has the horses under Chip Kelly

UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks into the Rose Bowl.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly heads into Saturday’s game against Stanford with a chance to end the season with a winning record for the first time since joining the Bruins.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

If Knute Rockne had the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Chip Kelly can claim the Thirteen Horses of the Pandemic.

While the former phrase became an essential part of college football lore, the latter is still slowly gaining traction.

Kelly’s version, outlined over a December teleconference instead of a blue, gray October sky, involved a man and his horse. The way the UCLA coach told the story earlier this week, the man was chided as an idiot after refusing to sell a prized horse that later ran off.

Two days later, the horse returned with 12 other horses and the man was hailed as a genius because now his stable housed 13 horses. But when his son tried to break one of the horses, he instead broke his leg and his father was once again castigated.

Finally, when a war broke out, the son was able to stay home because of his broken leg and the father was celebrated anew.


UCLA, after consulting players and school and Pac-12 officials, says it will decline any bowl bid and finish the season Saturday against Stanford.

Dec. 17, 2020

“So life happens at us a million different ways,” Kelly said of the story’s message. “I think we’ve all learned that through COVID and 2020 more than anything, so just appreciate your day you’re in.”

Saturday will be it for the Bruins, the final day of a most unusual season. After only a handful of spring practices, a delayed training camp and a shortened, conference-only schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they know the end is near.

UCLA (3-3) has elected to decline any bowl opportunities even if a victory over Stanford (3-2) at the Rose Bowl gives the Bruins their first winning season since 2015.

That means the game could be a farewell for a handful of Bruins, including junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but apparently not for Kelly after his rebuilding efforts have laid a visible foundation at the end of his third season. UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond shot down a FootballScoop report Thursday claiming that Kelly was not assured of returning in 2021 even with a victory over the Cardinal.

“Not true,” Jarmond tweeted in response. “Very disappointing @FootballScoop, how about you call me next time. Go Bruins!”


Beating Stanford would do more than put a pretty bow on one of the untidiest seasons in UCLA history. It would show that Kelly just might be at least a semblance of the coach the Bruins thought they were getting when they gave him a school-record five-year, $23.3-million contract.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs the ball during a win over California on Nov. 15.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

UCLA’s defense finally showed up in Year 3, the arrival of defensive backs coach Brian Norwood and his 4-2-5 scheme relieving significant pressure on defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. Now the biggest problem the Bruins face is properly divvying credit for a defense that leads the Pac-12 Conference with 21 sacks and ranks second with six interceptions.

Kelly’s offense continues to hum along, the Bruins ranking second in the conference in both total offense (450.3 yards per game) and rushing offense (220.5 yards per game), even if they’ve struggled with turnovers (12) and fourth-down conversion success (33.3%).

The Bruins have gone from bad and boring during Kelly’s first two seasons to borderline electrifying, despite the challenges presented by spending six months in what amounted to a lockdown for players accustomed to having free rein on campus. They maximized opportunities, joining Oregon State as the only Pac-12 teams to play on the first six weekends of the season and showing their efforts were worthwhile.

“I don’t think anybody took this year for granted; we could’ve been not playing at all,” said Thompson-Robinson, who missed two games after being quarantined as part of contact tracing protocols. “I think it’s really brought a real appreciation, not only to the players but the coaches, the trainers, that makes you really see how much you miss people and miss the game and just miss being out there with everybody on the field.”

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills could present a tough challenge for UCLA as the Bruins look to close out their season with a victory.

Dec. 18, 2020

Thompson-Robinson said he had not contemplated whether he would return next season or opt for the NFL draft after showcasing himself as a top-tier Pac-12 quarterback. His pass efficiency rating of 160.49 this season tops Brett Hundley’s 152.7 from his final college season in 2014, and is the highest for a UCLA quarterback since Drew Olson posted a 161.6 in 2005, when the Bruins finished 10-2.

There would be ample reason to come back with a large chunk of the roster expected to return — even without the extra year of eligibility granted to every player in the wake of the pandemic. The trajectory needle is pointed upward under Kelly after hovering close to horizontal for much of the last two seasons.

In a twist worthy of Kelly’s parable, the Bruins’ pandemic struggles might have helped them fully embrace their coach’s businesslike approach with nothing to focus on the last nine months other than football.

“With 2020,” Thompson-Robinson said, “I think it’s brought a level of understanding and a level of clarity to everybody, what he’s trying to say and what he’s trying to preach and I think that’s why everybody bought in.”

One might say they figured it just made good horse sense.