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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is UCLA finally on track with Chip Kelly?

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9:30 AM ET

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    Kyle BonaguraESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covers the Pac-12.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Attended Washington State University.

PASADENA, Calif. — Early in the second quarter of UCLA‘s 38-27 win against LSU on Saturday, athletic director Martin Jarmond stood in his suite and looked out over the nearly-full Rose Bowl, soaking in the atmosphere.

“This looks good,” he said, beaming with pride.

Moments later, running back Zach Charbonnet plowed through the LSU defense for a 12-yard touchdown run to put UCLA ahead for the first time in the game. Jarmond instinctually sent both arms straight above his head. Though he was cautious not to make too much of the moment — there was still a lot of game to be played — the celebration wasn’t just about taking a second-quarter lead. It was a brief glimpse at a vision becoming a reality.

“So happy for this community, for this team,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said after the win. “It’s a long time coming. I know the Bruin fans had to wait a little while, but we’ve got things going in the right direction now.”

When former UCLA AD Dan Guerrero hired Chip Kelly in 2017, he was widely accepted as the best coach on the market. Though his foray into the NFL didn’t work out, Kelly’s 46-7 record in four years as the head coach at Oregon spoke for itself. His arrival in Westwood came with the expectations that UCLA could finally tap into its long unmet potential and compete regularly for conference titles. It also allowed for the possibility that UCLA could become relevant on the national stage.

Over Kelly’s first three years, that didn’t happen. Not even close.

The first two seasons were abject disasters from a win-loss standpoint (combined 7-17 record), and in 2019, season-ticket sales dropped to their lowest figure since the Bruins moved into the Rose Bowl in 1981. Last year, without fans in the pandemic-abbreviated season, there was progress (3-4), but that spoke to just how far the bar had been lowered.

Behind the scenes, though, Kelly grew confident that as the team’s depth improved so would its fortunes on the field. The Bruins had 115 players participate in spring ball — usually that number hovers around 70 — and they were positioned to have several veteran players in key roles.

“In our first season when we beat USC, we had 57 scholarship players,” Kelly told ESPN in July. “Everybody else has got 85. Then when we added 25, we got to 72. Then last year, we were still under 80. This will be the first year we’re over 80 in scholarships. So just getting that competitive depth [matters], because in this league your depth is going to get tested. I think we’ve always had some really good frontline players, but when one of them went down, there was a drop off.”

History shows it’s ridiculous to make any firm conclusions about a college football team in the first month of the season. How a win against LSU, which went 5-5 last season, will be viewed at season’s end remains to be seen, but that doesn’t take away from the fact it was the program’s most significant win since Kelly arrived.

It was important to build early-season momentum for an increasingly apathetic fanbase. The celebratory atmosphere with nearly 70,000 fans in attendance was the type of experience that can keep fans coming back and stood in stark contrast to the Bruins’ win in a mostly-empty stadium against Hawaii the week before.

“I think that was the most packed that I’ve seen the Rose Bowl since I’ve been here,” linebacker Bo Calvert said. “And I loved it. It was great energy from the get-go. The defense was on point, you know, really thriving off the home crowd. There were a lot of LSU fans here, too. And I think that was really fun to be a part of, to have a team that travels as big as they did.”

For Thompson-Robinson, who was committed to the program before Kelly was hired, the win also provided a sense of validation.

“I think everybody in the locker room was very confident going into this game,” he said. “Everyone expected to win the game. That just proved our expectations, and we’ve got more to come.”

Through two games, Thompson-Robinson has completed 19 of 36 passes for 390 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. While his numbers aren’t jump-off-the-page impressive, he has shown an ability to find playmakers at key moments. Against LSU, he hit tight end Greg Dulcich, who turned a medium-sized gain into a 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter and later connected with Kyle Philips on a 45-yard touchdown that put UCLA 38-20 late in the fourth.

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Kyle Philips impresses with his footwork as UCLA upsets No. 16 LSU.

What makes the offense go, however, is the two running backs: Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. A week after combining for 186 yards on 19 carries against Hawaii, the tandem ran for 213 yards on 28 carries vs. LSU. The team in the “sissy blue” uniforms, as what LSU coach Ed Orgeron referred to UCLA’s blue as, was the more physical one, and that applied to both sides of the ball.

UCLA allowed just 49 yards on 25 carries, and while LSU quarterback Max Johnson threw for 330 yards, he was never comfortable.

“You saw us changing groupings out there — it was like watching a hockey game with changing lines, but I think it is because our defensive staff did a great job of keeping everybody fresh,” Kelly said. “Every guy was just so dialed into the game plan and there is not a drop off when you go from one group to another group. I’ve been impressed with them for a long time.”

With offensive balance, a good defense and, finally, depth, the main takeaway from UCLA at this point is that the tempered external expectations that came with the season are about to rise.

The Bruins are off this week and will return to the Rose Bowl on Sept. 18 against a Fresno State team that gave Oregon everything it could handle before losing in Eugene on Saturday.

From there, the schedule sets up pretty well for UCLA once Pac-12 play starts at Stanford on Sept. 25. Of the first four teams on the schedule — Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Washington — only ASU won its opener. If the Bruins can get through that stretch unscathed, it will add to the intrigue when Kelly’s former team, Oregon, heads to the Rose Bowl on Oct. 23.

“They understand that if you embrace the process, the process will embrace you back,” Kelly said. “I think these guys are getting out of it exactly what they’re putting into it. And the cool part, the mature part, is that they’re actually putting more into it. They want more out of it.

“It’s the greatest game ever invented because you can’t fake football.”

Soon enough, the country will find out if UCLA is for real.

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