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UCLA’s inconsistency under Chip Kelly once again in spotlight after loss

UCLA coach Chip Kelly looks at the scoreboard while standing next to quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly looks at the scoreboard while standing next to quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the closing moments of the Bruins’ loss to Arizona State at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Chip Kelly doesn’t believe in momentum. Makes sense, since he hasn’t sustained any at UCLA.

The late-season promise the coach’s first team showed was obliterated by an 0-3 start to 2019 that included a historic loss to San Diego State.

His second team won three consecutive midseason games before going kerplunk with three consecutive losses.

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The Bruins creeped above .500 in Kelly’s third season before staggering to another losing record with collapses against USC and Stanford.

A key defensive stop by Arizona State on fourth down played a significant role in sending UCLA to a 42-23 loss that stymied the Bruins’ bid for first place.

The latest letdown has been the most excruciating. After finally generating national buzz by beating Louisiana State as part of a 2-0 start last month, UCLA has once again showed that its colors under Kelly might as well be blue and fool’s gold.

The perfect metaphor arrived midway through the second quarter against Arizona State on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.

Center Duke Clemens was called for a false start.

“Unacceptable,” Kelly said of his team’s eight penalties for 89 yards during a 42-23 loss to Arizona State. “We’ve got to clear that up.”

Any remaining buzz around No. 20 UCLA was silenced after the team fell to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12 Conference with a second consecutive home defeat. Predictably, the Bruins were knocked out of the national rankings Sunday.

Kelly likes to say you are what your record says you are. His is 13-23 since his arrival in Westwood.

Things were supposed to change in emphatic fashion with the arrival of a deep and savvy roster that started seniors at every position on defense. Yet many of the same issues that plagued Kelly’s early UCLA teams seem stuck on repeat.

The defense on Saturday provided a throwback to 2019, when it gave up the most passing yards in school history. Arizona State (4-1, 2-0) won handily despite running only 51 plays to UCLA’s 83 because it averaged nearly a first down on every play.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson sprints ahead of diving Arizona State defensive back T Lee.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson sprints ahead of diving Arizona State defensive back T Lee during the Bruins’ 42-23 loss Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Sun Devils rolled up 458 yards of offense and averaged nine yards per play while repeatedly victimizing a UCLA secondary that played most of the game without injured safeties Quentin Lake and Kenny Churchwell III, forcing walk-on Alex Johnson onto the field. Kelly’s deepest UCLA team was so thin at the position that the next Bruin up might have been Joe Bruin.

There were also inexcusable penalties by veteran players. Graduate transfer linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath and senior edge rusher Mitchell Agude were called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Senior guard Atonio Mafi was called for unnecessary roughness. Redshirt junior tight end Greg Dulcich was called for offensive pass interference. Junior left tackle Sean Rhyan was called for holding — twice.

Kelly blamed the penalties for his offense going scoreless in the second half for the first time since a loss to Utah in November 2019. But his excuse seemed flimsy given that the Bruins gained a first down following two of the three offensive penalties they committed after halftime.

Kelly’s game management also came under fire again. He elected to go for it on fourth and one at the Arizona State two-yard line early in the fourth quarter while training by nine points rather than kick an easy goal that would have made it a one-score game.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson faked a handoff to running back Zach Charbonnet and tried to cut outside. He didn’t make it, getting wrapped up by freshman defensive back Eric Gentry for a one-yard loss.

It was another questionable move for a coach whose late-game decisions haven’t worked out in recent losses to USC, Stanford, Fresno State and Arizona State.

One had to wonder what the throng of recruits at the game was thinking as the Bruins withered in another big moment. Even the cheerleaders let their minds wander midway through the third quarter, running along the sideline with giant flags spelling “UCLA” in celebration of a field-goal attempt ... that sailed wide left.

Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels threw touchdowns of 65 and 54 yards as the Cajon High alumnus led the Sun Devils to a 42-23 win over UCLA on Saturday.

A crowd of 40,522 that included one of the largest student sections in recent memory will need reason to return beyond blind loyalty. The Bruins must win their next two games, against Arizona and Washington on the road, to expect more than a half-full Rose Bowl on Oct. 23 when they face Oregon.

This season is taking on a painfully familiar arc for Bruins fans. Anyone remember 2017? A promising start ended with the dismissal of coach Jim Mora even after the Bruins won enough games to qualify for a lower-tier bowl they lost under interim coach Jedd Fisch (whom, coincidentally, they will face next weekend in Tucson).

UCLA must do a lot more than beat the winless Wildcats to salvage its season. It’s going to need to build some momentum to show it can succeed under a coach in his fourth year playing with almost exclusively his own recruits.

If not now, when?


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