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Column: Dominating start for Chip Kelly and UCLA breeds hope this season will be different

UCLA coach Chip Kelly talks with players during the second quarter of the Bruins' 44-10 win over Hawaii.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly talks with players during the second quarter of the Bruins’ 44-10 win over Hawaii at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The steps are steep and slippery. The engine has sputtered for more than two decades. The entire contraption is consistently on the verge of collapse.

But go ahead, do it, try it, risk it, grab a seat, it could be one wild and exhilarating ride.

All aboard the UCLA football bandwagon.

I’m there, as of early Saturday afternoon, hoisting myself up as I watched the Bruins shred an overmatched Hawaii team, 44-10, in their season opener at the Rose Bowl.

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The view is unfamiliar. The feeling is strange. I haven’t been in this position in 20 years, since I wrote a column celebrating Bob Toledo’s Bruins just before their collapse. The piece was headlined, “Westwood Ho,” and USC fans will never let me forget it.

No, no, this time I’m not writing that this is going to become a UCLA football town.

But this season could very well be a UCLA football moment.

UCLA dominated every phase of the game, overpowering Hawaii to kick off the 2021 season at the Rose Bowl.

These Bruins look different. They run different. They hit different. They compete different. Even notoriously distant coach Chip Kelly seems different, calmly coaching for his life in short pants, T-shirt and the return of his Oregon-trademark visor, clearly more relaxed with a veteran team that is finally paying attention.

When the sweltering afternoon game ended, despite temperatures that stretched toward triple digits, the Bruins didn’t want to leave the field, and the fans who huddled above the end zone tunnel didn’t want to leave the stadium.

The kids hugged and danced and posed for photos. The fans pointed and saluted and shouted their names, Later, on the concourse outside the players’ exit, several hundred family members crowded and cheered.

Something different is indeed happening with a program that has not won a Pac-12 championship in too-long-to-believe 23 years.

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Something that is actually making Kelly smile.

“This team is a special team,” said Kelly, who noted the roster has 16 players in graduate school and 18 graduates. “You can be a special team and get your tail kicked on weekends too, but the players we have right now are really special…it’s a mature team…they’re really disciplined in terms of what they want to do.”

They did it all in a blur Saturday. The game was over almost before it started. UCLA scored 24 points in its first 21 plays, capitalizing on several bruising runs, several Hawaii mistakes and a one-handed interception by defensive lineman Datona Jackson. The Bruins eventually scored all 44 points in barely more than two quarters before the reserves played most of the second half.

“We’re just excited as a team,” Kelly said, and that excitement was everywhere.

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Look, there was Michigan-transfer running back Zach Charbonnet breaking five tackles on his way to a 47-yard touchdown run, one of his three scores and 106 yards in just six carries. Quite the revelation. Thank you, Jim Harbaugh. And this guy isn’t even the starter, that title goes to Brittain Brown, who added 78 yards and a touchdown to give UCLA a solid 1-2 crunch.

Here are some of the best photos of UCLA football’s 44-10 win over Hawaii from veteran Times photographer Luis Sinco.

“If you ask me, I think we have the best running back duo in the country,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said. “It was on full display today.”

Then, check it out, an experienced offensive line that blew the Rainbow Warriors into Old Town Pasadena, 244 yards rushing total, clearing so many holes on one play, Charbonnet ran 21 yards up the middle completely untouched for a score.

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“They run angry, and we love that as an offensive line,’’ center Jon Gaines II said.

Or how about that defense, a bunch of returning starters, swarming and stymying Hawaii, holding it to 26 yards rushing with two interceptions and a blocked punt by Ale Kaho that David Priebe fell on for a touchdown.

“I feel like this team can do whatever we want to do,” defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight said.

And, oh yeah, there he was, mainstay quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, rescuing a mediocre performance with a dazzling deep ball on a 44-yard touchdown pass to Kazmeir Allen. Thompson-Robinson only completed half of his 20 passes, but he didn’t make a mistake. The difference between this team and his previous two teams is that he doesn’t have to be the star, he just needs to not mess it up.

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“Took care of the ball on offense, created turnovers on defense…you couldn’t ask for more than that,” Thompson-Robinson said.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tries to hurdle over Hawaii defender Chima Azonnah.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tries to hurdle over Hawaii defender Chima Azonnah in the first quarter Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This was the sort of game the Bruins should have won, but have rarely won in such dominating fashion, and quite often have lost. It was Kelly’s first season-opening win in his fourth season, his first win in seven non-conference games, and his first win against smaller Group of Five opponents.

In all, a good day for a bandwagon, which still has plenty of room, as the game was played in front of what was the second-smallest announced crowd in UCLA’s 39-year history here, 32,982 that appeared to be half of that. Even with tarp covering a huge swath of seats in the north end zone, the place looked absolutely empty. It was even more awkward when some of the loudest cheers were heard when UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin delivered a message on the videoboard.

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The bandwagon also surely rolling with doubt, as UCLA beat up on a confused, chaotic, wholly unprepared Rainbow Warriors team that required all three of its first-half timeouts in the first nine minutes of the game.

And let’s be honest, the bandwagon might not stay upright for more than a week, as Louisiana State comes to town next Saturday with more fans, more history, and probably more talent.

But still, there is real hope here, and for a team that hasn’t had a winning record in six years, hope works.

“It’s been a long time coming, four years being here, putting in that hard work and having some ups and downs,” said senior defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, noting they lost their four games last season by a total of 15 points. “So just having that kind of pain in our minds, knowing that we have to finish, I think that’s what we saw today.”

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What a finish. What a start. All aboard.


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