Gold: Have we seen peak UCLA? And what does that mean for Chip Kelly?
In Thursday’s Sun Bowl coaches press conference, Chip Kelly was asked about the timetable of UCLA’s turnaround, and here’s what he said:
“I don’t think you can put a timetable on something like that.”
Well, Kelly won’t, but UCLA fans sure are.
As a collective, they’re standing there, arms crossed, tapping their feet, staring at their watches, looking up, tapping their watch and letting out a big sigh.
A Sun Bowl win and a 10th win for the season — a feat only achieved 9 times in UCLA history — would have at least staved off the torches. Instead, the Bruins lost the game on a last-second field goal just seconds after they took the narrowest of leads, stalling out at 9 wins, with losses to Arizona, USC and a depleted Pitt squad in the final four weeks of competition.
Incremental progress in an era of rapid turnarounds, 8 wins turning into 9 wins, a 1-3 stretch to end the season: That’s not exactly engendering a lot of loyalty out there. The Bruins have been called a sleeping giant for so long you have to wonder if they’re in a coma.
*some* #UCLA football fans in 2022:
– After 3 close cupcake wins: Fire Chip!
– After a 6-0 start: Chip's the man!
– After a 9-3 season ends with a TIGHT loss against an elite USC team: Fire Chip!
– After UCLA lands 5⭐️ QB Dante Moore: Chip is the man!
– After today: Fire Chip!
— Gavin Carlson (@GavinCarlsonDB) December 31, 2022
Now, after the 20th 9-win season in Bruins history, with a 5th-year starting quarterback exiting the program and likely the team’s star running back bidding goodbye as well, it’s fair to ask: Has UCLA peaked under Chip Kelly?
And what will that mean for the program?
On Friday after the loss, Kelly was asked the team’s flat-footed finish.
“I didn’t really think about that until you mentioned that,” Kelly said. “I’m concerned with the players in the locker room and how they feel. Especially the guys who aren’t coming back. I don’t think this final game will diminish what they’ve done here.”
No, but it diminishes Kelly.
UCLA started this season 8-1, but the 1-3 finish prevents the Bruins from tying the school record of 10 victories.
Chip Kelly is 27-29 in five seasons at UCLA.
— Greg Beacham (@gregbeacham) December 30, 2022
Facing a backup quarterback in Nick Patti — former Pitt QB, and former USC Trojan, Kedon Slovis announced his transfer to BYU — the Bruins allowed the Panthers to score 20 consecutive points in the 3rd and 4th quarters.
Then, rallying themselves with a backup quarterback in Ethan Garbers — who replaced the injured Dorian Thompson-Robinson — UCLA scored with 34 seconds to go up 1, 35-34, only to allow the Panthers to march 46 yards in 30 seconds to set up the game-winning field goal by Pitt’s Ben Sauls.
On the final drive, UCLA rushed just 3 pass rushers, but failed to keep challenge receivers enough or keep them in front of them.
“That was what the plan was,” Kelly said. “But obviously we didn’t come out on the right side of that.”
In the grand scheme of things, a 2-point Sun Bowl loss is not a harbinger of bad things to come.
The Bruins nearly survived 5 turnovers — including 3 DTR interceptions — as well as the absence of star running back Zach Charbonnet. In his absence, TJ Harden had 111 rushing yards and a score, while wideout Kam Brown had 4 grabs for 115 yards.
Thompson-Robinson was lost early in the 4th quarter after throwing his last pass as a Bruin, which was intercepted.
“That’s my boy; it sucked to see him go down,” UCLA offensive lineman Jon Gaines said. “But Ethan stepped in and really played a great role and carried us as far as he could.”
Not quite far enough, it seems, leaving UCLA fans wanting.
Nine wins, with this team, which included a ton of transfer talent and one of the best backfields in program history, was supposed to win double-digit games. They were supposed to drop maybe 1 game in conference play, not 3, and certainly not with losses to Arizona nd USC.
But here’s a scary stat: Since the Pac-10 expanded to a 9-game conference schedule in 2006, the Bruins have never won more than 6 league games. They did it 3 times in Jim Mora’s first 3 seasons and now this year under Kelly.
This might just be their ceiling.
But now the ceiling and the walls around it are closing in. Next year becomes a pressure-filled year for the Bruins, coincidentally their last in the Pac-12 before joining the Big Ten in 2024.
With a 5-star freshman quarterback coming in (Dante Moore) and a promising transfer in former Kent State quarterback Collin Schlee, UCLA’s passing game will undoubtedly look different than it has during the entire Kelly tenure with Thompson-Robinson at the helm.
If Kelly can make quick work of either Moore or Schlee, another 8- or 9-win season is a possibility.
If he can’t, the sound of tapping watches is going to get louder and louder.