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  • The Chip Kelly era in Los Angeles did not get off to a good start, with UCLA dropping one of the most winnable games on its brutal schedule.
By Joan Niesen
September 01, 2018

The Chip Kelly era started in Los Angeles with a sputter. Cincinnati, coming off a 4–8 season in 2017, went into the Rose Bowl and beat the Bruins, 26–17, on Saturday night. The two teams were tied at 17 for much of the third quarter, but Cincinnati pulled ahead and ultimately clinched the win on maybe the least thrilling of plays: a fourth-quarter safety.

In a stadium where his Oregon teams experienced great success, the idea of Kelly coaching in the Pac-12 again was brought down to earth. The realities of what the first-year UCLA coach faces this season are stark: The Bruins have a brutal schedule, and in Week 1, they squandered one of their best chances at a win. Still, Kelly is working with a roster not exactly loaded with talent, and an 0–1 start should be taken as little more than that—a loss to start a tenure that will be defined by much more than Kelly’s first game or even his first season.

In the week leading up to the game, Kelly named Michigan graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight to the starting job. Last season, as the Wolverines QB, Speight completed 17 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 2 win over Cincinnati—but this time around, he was pulled in the game’s first half after completing 8 of 12 passes for 45 yards and an interception. In his place, UCLA played Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a freshman who completed 15 of 25 passes for 117 yards. He also failed to toss a touchdown pass, and the Bruins offense was powered in large part by diminutive freshman running back Kazmeir Allen, who won the state championship in the 100-yard dash in high school last year—and it showed Saturday. Speedy enough that the Cincinnati secondary seemed borderline irrelevant on at least one play Saturday, Allen ran for a 74-yard touchdown and finished the night with 103 yards on the ground—good for more than a third of the Bruins’ total offense.

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UCLA’s schedule goes from bad to worse next week, when it travels to Oklahoma. After that, Kelly and company face Fresno State, which went 10–4 a year ago, before beginning Pac-12 play. It’s hard to imagine the Bruins coming anywhere close to a bowl berth this season, but to expect such a thing based on Kelly’s résumé would be unfair. Sure, much has been made of UCLA being unable to do much with loads of talent in recent seasons, but that’s not his problem. Since the College Football Playoff began, the Bruins have produced 21 NFL draft picks, more than any other school in the Pac-12 over that four-year span. By comparison, USC produced 19 picks in that time, Stanford 17—but all that means to the new regime is that a ton of talented players have left Los Angeles for pro jobs. The roster Kelly inherited isn’t ready to compete on a major stage, and he’s barely been able to put his stamp on it.

On the other side of the ball, seeing Cincinnati log a Power 5 win, albeit against a rebuilding team, is a huge step for second-year coach Luke Fickell. Last season, its only victories came against Austin Peay, Miami (Ohio), Tulane and UConn—the latter two by one point each. As the Bearcats’ coach, Fickell’s only Power 5 matchup resulted in a 36–14 loss at Michigan, so to travel across the country and defeat UCLA, no matter what the situation is in Los Angeles, has meaning. Cincinnati’s defense played aggressively, and in the red zone, its offense came up big, in large part thanks to running back Michael Warren II, who scored all three of the Bearcats’ touchdowns on one-yard runs.

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