UCLA gives coach Chip Kelly a signature win with upset of No. 16 LSU

UCLA coach Chip Kelly leaves the field after his Bruins beat LSU 38-27 at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4, 2021.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly leaves the field after his Bruins beat Louisiana State 38-27 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The bamboo sprouted on a sweltering September evening at the Rose Bowl, after so much waiting, so many doubts.

It was the realization of one of Chip Kelly’s favorite motivational mantras involving the giant timber bamboo. If you water the bamboo in the first year, nothing happens. If you water it in the second year, nothing happens. If you water it in the third year, nothing happens. If you water it in the fourth year, it grows 90 feet in six weeks.

In Kelly’s fourth year at UCLA, after a whole lot of nothing, the bamboo was visible throughout the Bruins’ 38-27 victory over No. 16 Louisiana State.

It could be seen in the playmaking of tight end Greg Dulcich, whose fancy footwork led to one touchdown after he juked a defender and nearly another when he converted a crucial third down and was stopped just short of the end zone.

UCLA is 2-0 and for-real real after defeating mighty LSU 38-27 on Saturday night at a rocking Rose Bowl, and the season’s promise is limitless.


It could be seen in a defense that continually stifled the Tigers, pressuring their quarterback and making them all but abandon a rushing attack that mostly ran in place.

It could be seen in the coach who stuck with his one-day-at-a-time vision amid a mountain of losses and criticism, Kelly’s team having a really good Saturday after so many fall flops.

“It’s good to have wet hair on Saturday night,” Kelly said after getting doused by spraying water bottles in the locker room. “That means that we did something good.”

The Bruins (2-0) provided their beleaguered coach with a signature victory that could catapult them into the national rankings for the first time since 2017 while likely knocking out the Tigers (0-1).

“Overrated!” chants could be heard from the crowd of 68,123 over the final minutes after most of the large throng of purple and gold had headed for the exits.

The UCLA Bruins football team leaves the field after beating LSU 38-27 at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 1, 2021.
The UCLA Bruins leave the field after upsetting LSU 38-27 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

After the final second ran off the clock, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson heaved the ball high into the air as teammates poured onto the field and confetti rained over them.

There was reason to rejoice. Dulcich caught three passes for 117 yards and running back Zach Charbonnet showed he wasn’t a one-game wonder, running for 117 yards and a touchdown in 11 carries to top 100 yards for the second consecutive week.

The fourth quarter was one extended celebration after a new LED display flashed from light banks high above the stadium, UCLA players bopping on the sideline to Tupac Shakur’s “California Love.”

Fans held up lights inside the momentarily darkened stadium, the festive mood heightened by the Bruins’ 24-20 lead heading into the final 15 minutes.

Things would only get a lot more fun.

Bruins coach Chip Kelly discusses the victory over LSU on Sept. 4, 2021, at the Rose Bowl.

Dulcich helped extend the advantage when he converted a third down with a 19-yard catch that he took to the one-yard line. Running back Brittain Brown scored on the next play, extending his team’s cushion to 31-20 with 12:28 left.

UCLA wide receiver Kyle Philips provided the exclamation point when he caught a pass and outmaneuvered two defenders near the sideline as part of a 45-yard touchdown that removed any remaining drama.

Not even a 45-yard touchdown pass from LSU quarterback Max Johnson to receiver Kayshon Boutte with four minutes left could dampen the mood.

UCLA’s defense held LSU to 48 yards rushing and 1.9 yards per rush, forcing the Tigers to try to beat them with their passing game. They couldn’t. Johnson completed 26 of 46 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while being harassed into a bevy of bad decisions.

Highlights from UCLA’s win over LSU on Saturday.

One of Johnson’s touchdowns required an unlikely assist midway through the third quarter. A referee stood between Bruins defensive back Jay Shaw and Boutte, screening Shaw as Boutte hauled in a short pass and ran for a 44-yard touchdown that pulled LSU to within 21-17.

It was as close as the Tigers could get while intensifying doubts about the direction of the program in the wake of a .500 season that followed their 2019 national championship.

UCLA’s trajectory needle is headed straight up thanks in large part to a running game that generated 215 yards and features more than Charbonnet. Brown ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in 17 carries, his legs constantly churning for difficult yards after contact.

Dulcich provided the game’s most improbable play when he cut across the field and took a short pass before appearing as if he might get tackled around LSU’s 37-yard line. That’s when he generated even bigger roars by sidestepping a defender and rambling ahead, finally tumbling into the end zone while being dragged down at the end of a 75-yard catch.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet runs untouched into the end zone for a score against LSU in the second quarter.
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet gets into the end zone for a 12-yard second-quarter touchdown run against LSU.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Dulcich said he was embodying the mindset of tight ends coach Derek Sage, who tells his players to think first down or touchdown after catches.

“I kind of think touchdown or first down,” Dulcich said.

Thompson-Robinson shook off some early indecisiveness to complete nine of 16 passes for 260 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while engineering a triumph that he hoped was a prelude to greater things.

“We don’t want to beat LSU,” Thompson-Robinson said, “we want to win the Pac-12 championship.”

Greg Dulcich was an offensive juggernaut for UCLA in its win over LSU, tallying a team-high 117 receiving yards and a touchdown on three catches.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond provided an emotional assist in the fourth quarter when he took a microphone and implored fans to get on their feet. After the game, Jarmond was the last person off the field, hugging coaches and players whose patient approach was finally rewarded.

“They understand if you embrace the process,” Kelly said, “the process will embrace you back.”