It was ugly, borderline unwatchable. It was infuriating, unfathomable that this was a Chip Kelly offense in Year 6 of his UCLA tenure, squandering a golden opportunity to knock off back-to-back Pac-12 champion Utah in what will be the Bruins’ last visit to Salt Lake City for quite a while.
No. 22 UCLA’s 14-7 defeat to the No. 11 Utes on Saturday encapsulated the Kelly era in Westwood to this point. Any time the program has a chance to make a statement and join the conference’s upper crust, it shrinks from the moment. Bruins fans have every reason to feel fed up and wonder if the breakthrough is ever going to happen under Kelly, especially with an intimidating move to the Big Ten looming next season.
But I must say, as brutal as it was to experience whether you are an unbiased observer or a zealot, UCLA actually made some small progress Saturday.
Yes, as crazy as it may sound, the Bruins got closer to the ultimate goal, assuming that goal is to field a complete football team with a real chance to win the grueling road games like this one that eventually lead to championship seasons.
This whiff on the big stage felt different than the others because UCLA brought a legitimate defense to the fight. It felt different because, even with all of the offensive errors, the Bruins still should have found a way to win the game.
I’d never watched UCLA play against Utah or Oregon, the conference’s powers during Kelly’s time, and thought the Bruins should have won.
Kelly’s critics rightfully will point out that Utah was playing without veteran quarterback Cam Rising, so you have to view the Bruins’ dominant defensive performance on the road with that in mind. I am, but UCLA’s defense under first-year coordinator D’Anton Lynn still put forth an inspiring effort compared to what we’ve seen in the past.
UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano was a one-man wrecking crew against the Utes, forcing a fumble and corralling the speedy Nate Johnson on a key fourth-down stop. The Bruins held Utah to 3.1 yards per rush — if you remove their four sacks — and tallied 11 tackles for loss and two turnovers.
“We’ve come a long way, you know?” said Medrano, a senior with an extra year of eligibility available next year because of the COVID-19 season. “Coach D-Lynn’s first year here, you can just look at it and see what he’s came in and done to this defense, how he’s changed it and how close we are as a defensive unit.”
Late in the fourth quarter after UCLA’s offense finally woke up to pull within 14-7, the defense did what the best units do, promptly forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball back to freshman quarterback Dante Moore, who seemed to be finding a groove.
“When they get that stop on third and one, not many defenses can do that,” Moore said. “So I love the defensive side of the ball for our team, but we’ve got to respond when they get a good stop for us.”
All afternoon, the offense did not honor the defense, which is of course the opposite of how it had been the last few years with Dorian Thompson-Robinson putting the program on his back week in and week out.
Moore, the gifted five-star prospect out of Detroit, actually might have some help as he comes along — if Lynn can continue to develop the defense like he has.
Moore understandably wasn’t ready for the combined challenge of a Kyle Whittingham defense and the Rice-Eccles Stadium atmosphere Saturday. On that potential game-tying drive, Moore took three sacks out of four plays.
Moore throws a beautiful ball when he has a clean pocket and an open receiver in his vision, but he has to do a better job making decisions when pressured, and he undoubtedly will.
“One of the things with Dante is I think he’s a really mature kid,” Kelly said. “So, I think when you talk to him on the sidelines, he had good answers and knew what we were doing. I’m sure there’s some plays he’ll want back. But there’s calls I want back. Rice-Eccles and Utah, their defense, everything they have, I’d say it’s a tough place to play. We’ll understand that. But that’s what you want. You want to play games like this.”
They won’t have to wait long. After their bye, the Bruins have ranked Washington State and Oregon State teams (or, the “2Pac” as they’re calling themselves now). The one in Corvallis in particular will give UCLA a chance to show it grew from this disappointment.
We’ll know then whether a miserable Saturday in Salt Lake did in fact represent a positive step, but that’s how it feels. Moore gives the offense a ceiling well in the range of what the Bruins did with Thompson-Robinson, and now we’ve seen signs of life from the defense.
“I believe in this football team,” Medrano said.
Now the rest of the team can believe in its defense too. If that dynamic holds, it’s a change that could lead to that breakthrough win UCLA fans have been waiting on for six years.