UCLA coach Chip Kelly needs wins during a difficult stretch to keep his job
The protagonist has been introduced, a once-admired coach seeking redemption after a midlife slump that raised questions about his brilliance.
The drama has heightened, 3 1/2 unsatisfying seasons leaving those questions largely unanswered amid more losses than wins as well as a trajectory suggesting a breakthrough remains possible.
Now comes the climax for Chip Kelly.
Can the UCLA coach create his Disney ending? Can he generate the success needed to energize a droopy fan base and secure a contract extension?
The next three weeks should reveal the answers after the Bruins slogged their way to a 34-16 victory over Arizona on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium that revealed little besides the team’s ability to avoid a mortifying stumble.
With Dorian Thompson-Robinson struggling and the defense unable to show consistency, the UCLA running game was operating at full steam in a 34-16 win over Arizona.
UCLA (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12 Conference) will enter the toughest pocket of its schedule next weekend in Seattle, a road game against Washington followed by a home game against No. 9 Oregon and a road game against Utah.
Win all three games and the season would be an unequivocal success, barring late missteps against Colorado, USC and California teams that may be headed for historically bad seasons.
Win two of three games and it would probably silence Kelly’s critics — for the moment, anyway — and put him on the path toward securing an extension of a contract that expires after the 2022 season.
Go 1-2 or 0-3 and it would be hard to envision a path forward at the school for a coach who needs to win his next nine games just to reach .500 since his arrival before the 2018 season.
One thing seems certain: more losses are on the way if the Bruins continue to play like they did against Arizona (0-5, 0-2), which has now lost 17 consecutive games.
The defense continued its stunning reversal of fortune since looking so stout against Louisiana State, failing to pressure Wildcats quarterback Jordan McCloud before he departed the game early in the fourth quarter with a gruesome injury. Arizona was trailing only 24-16 at that point, largely because McCloud was given plenty of time to find holes in the secondary.
The Wildcats might have been leading had they not offered the Bruins repeated bailouts. Arizona kicked two field goals in the first half after having one drive that reached UCLA’s nine-yard line sabotaged by a false start and another drive that reached the Bruins’ 20 shifted into reverse by an errant snap.
Bad penalties continued to be an issue one week after Kelly prioritized their elimination, particularly on defense. There were two facemask penalties. Two pass interference penalties. One roughing the passer. All gave the Wildcats first downs.
Kelly seemed to suggest some of his team’s eight penalties for a season-high 95 yards were unwarranted.
“Some of it is … I can’t talk about it,” Kelly said.
Asked if he was saying some of the penalties weren’t penalties, Kelly answered, “I did not say a word.”
Kelly would have had to answer for a lot more had his running game not revved back into high gear. Brittain Brown (146 yards) and Zach Charbonnet (117) helped the team pile up a season-high 329 rushing yards, its highest total since gaining 345 against Nevada in 2013.
All were needed on a night that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson failed to find a passing rhythm. He completed only one of eight passes for three yards during a first half in which Arizona receiver Jamarye Joiner surpassed his total with a 10-yard touchdown pass on a trick play.
After acknowledging earlier in the week that he was “not really even close to 100%” because of various aches and pains, Thompson-Robinson said his struggles throwing the ball — he finished completing eight of 19 passes for 82 yards with one touchdown and one interception — weren’t attributable to injury. Kelly said the passing inefficiency came as a result of Arizona’s pressure.
“Some of it was coverage-wise and some of it was their blitz scheme, they bring a lot of different guys and we missed a couple of protections,” Kelly said, “so Dorian was forced to throw hot and we shouldn’t have been throwing hot.”
Regardless of the reason, the Bruins are going to need to be much better at throwing the ball when facing teams that are not stuck on school-record losing streaks.
If not, the credits will roll on Kelly’s time at UCLA.
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