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UCLA routs Hawaii in season opener for Chip Kelly’s first nonconference Bruins win

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet breaks free for a touchdown run against Hawaii in the first quarter Aug. 28, 2021.
UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet breaks free for a first-quarter touchdown run against Hawaii. The transfer from Michigan ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns in his Bruins debut as UCLA rolled 44-10.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

As he made his way off the Rose Bowl field, first stopping for pleasantries with players and coaches before completing a television interview, Chip Kelly had a special admirer waiting for him as he neared the tunnel.

It was his wife, Jill, who wrapped the UCLA coach in a warm embrace. Next came a kiss on the lips. From along a railing above, one fan issued his verdict on what had just transpired.

“Way to go, Chip!” the fan shouted.

Everything felt, looked and sounded different for Kelly and his team Saturday. Nearly four years after Kelly’s arrival, the Bruins checked a couple of boxes that had long tormented their coach.

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First nonconference victory. First victory in a season opener. First promise of something special.

UCLA’s 44-10 victory over Hawaii before an announced crowd of 32,982 may have heralded that this team is capable of far greater things than a rout of a Mountain West Conference opponent.

UCLA still has a lot to prove, but its blowout victory over Hawaii on Saturday shows there’s finally some hope for positive change with the program.

“This team can do whatever we want to do,” defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight said after the Bruins rolled up a 44-3 lead early in the third quarter, allowing a flurry of reserves to play.

Before Saturday, Kelly’s nonconference record had been such a sore spot with UCLA fans that it could be rattled off by memory: He had gone 0-6, including 0-4 against Group of Five opponents.

No more.

UCLA dominated in every facet against Hawaii. Running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown combined for 184 yards and four touchdowns, an attacking defense held the Rainbow Warriors without a touchdown until late in the third quarter, and the Bruins’ special teams blocked a punt for a touchdown.

Charbonnet, a Michigan transfer who had starred at Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village before spending his first two college seasons with the Wolverines, enjoyed a grand UCLA debut.

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His third carry went for a touchdown. So did his fourth. And his sixth.

Charbonnet had run for 106 yards by then as UCLA built a 31-3 lead early in the second quarter. He would not get another carry; there was no need.

Embattled UCLA coach Chip Kelly got an endorsement from analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Matt Leinart, who suggested the Bruins are going to surprise in 2021.

Charbonnet’s first touchdown came after he burst untouched through a huge hole up the middle for 21 yards, his most difficult challenge eluding an official in the way. His second touchdown came on a 47-yard run in which he broke five tackles, including two from the same defender. His third touchdown came after he juked a few defenders on another 21-yard run.

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“He’s relentless when he has the football and he’s always running with a great forward lean,” Kelly said of the junior who averaged 17.7 yards per carry. “It makes him very difficult to tackle. He’s 220 pounds but he’s got legit speed.”

UCLA's Brittain Brown runs with the ball during the first half Aug. 28, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif.
UCLA’s Brittain Brown runs with the ball during the first half Saturday. He finished with 78 yards and a touchdown in 12 carries.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Brown complemented Chabonnet with 78 yards and a touchdown in 13 carries as part of the Bruins’ 1-2 rushing punch, sparking some superlatives from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

“We have the best running back duo in the country,” Thompson-Robinson said after he salvaged his own performance with a 44-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kazmeir Allen early in the third quarter.

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Thompson-Robinson completed 10 of 20 passes for 130 yards without an interception or a fumble, avoiding the struggles in the turnover department that plagued him in previous openers. Backup Ethan Garbers entered the game late in the third quarter and completed both of his passes for 18 yards in his Bruins debut.

UCLA’s defense held Hawaii to 269 yards, including only 26 on the ground, while twice sacking quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and intercepting two passes. Bruins linebacker Ale Kaho blocked a punt and teammate David Priebe pounced on the ball in the end zone, breaking the Rainbow Warriors’ streak of 154 games without a blocked punt that was the longest in the nation.

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

It was such a throwback to the kind of dominance that Kelly’s Oregon teams routinely enjoyed that the coach even broke out a visor reminiscent of the headwear he once donned with the Ducks.

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“I’ve always been partial to visors that that company makes,” Kelly said, alluding to the team’s new Jordan Brand partnership, “so it was good I got to wear it.”

The only downer came in the stands, where the crowd comprised the second smallest for a UCLA game at the Rose Bowl, topping only the 32,513 who showed up against Oregon State in November 1992.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches his players warm up before a game against Hawaii on Aug. 28, 2021.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches his players warm up before they rolled to an easy win over Hawaii at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Fans who made their return to the Rose Bowl after a 637-day absence forced by the pandemic were treated to stadium-wide beer and wine sales for the first time since 1989. They also were greeted by giant blue and gold tarps covering seats in the upper reaches of one end zone spelling UCLA in block letters, a tipoff that a relatively small crowd was expected.

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Those who showed up went home happy.

Skeptics screaming “It’s just Hawaii!” should get some answers as to the Bruins’ potency in just a week. No. 16 Louisiana State and its throng of fans will visit the Rose Bowl, providing more definitive clues in determining whether what happened Saturday was a prelude to greatness or just a Hawaiian dream.

“Next week!” Knight shouted as he pranced his way off the field, glaring into nearby cameras. “Next week!”


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