PASADENA—Chip Kelly, coaching his first game for UCLA on the first day of September, produced these first-three plays from scrimmage: incomplete pass, two-yard gain, false start.
Kelly’s first series was a three-and-out and the first UCLA touchdown, under his command, was a boring one-yard run.
Kelly walked into his first UCLA halftime trailing, 17-10, and took his first UCLA loss at 7:25 p.m., Pacific Sub-Standard Time, on Saturday.
The final was Cincinnati 26, UChipLA 17 and as debuts go, it was inauspicious, not even a "four" on the eight-clap scale.
Based on the UCLA crowd, it also appeared this was the first many fans were hearing about it.
“There were a lot of firsts for everybody,” Kelly said at his first post-game press conference.
Now we know why practices were closed.
Kelly did not appear overly upset at defeat, or resigned to it. He looked like a guy in for the long haul it’s going to be.
UCLA was a somehow a double-digit favorite, but that was an homage to Kelly’s past and reputation.
“So now what?” is what Kelly matter-of-factly said. “What are we going to do next?”
Kelly’s debut at Oregon, the LeGarrette Blount punch-bowl game, was a much bigger fiasco, but Oregon was also a much better team--one that rebounded to make the Rose Bowl.
This team is not going to rebound like that.
UCLA played like a squad of wide-eyed freshmen, which is what it is. The Bruins played 11 first-year freshmen, including Kazmeir Allen, the California 100-meter champion from Tulare Union High, who ripped off a 74-yard touchdown\sprint.
UCLA played like a team, mostly, still trying to line up right, one that was also playing without six suspended players.
"Just too many mistakes," Kelly said. "We knew going into the game we were going to be young,”
UCLA got younger when freshman quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, was forced to play earlier expected after grad-transfer Wilton Speight injured his back.
Winning with a true freshman is still hard. A late Thompson-Robinson fumble, in the shadow of his own goal, led to the safety that gave Cincinnati a 19-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
Thompson-Robinson also missed a receiver on a fourth-and-short gamble at UCLA’s 36.
Blame it on first game jitters.
“I now know what it’s like,” he said of his first taste of college ball.
That wasn't all: In the final two minutes, on fourth and goal, UCLA’s defense was about to hold Cincinnati to a short field that would have kept the lead at five.
Instead, the Bruins had 12 men on the field, giving Bearcat Coach Luke Fickell the chance to change his mind and go for the game-clinching touchdown.
“That’s on the coaches,” Kelly said of the penalty. “That’s on us.”
First game for everyone.
The Rose Bowl crowd of 54,116 arrived late and filed out early and there was little of what you would call Chip Kelly “buzz.”
I promised myself NOT to make this a harangue on indifferent Bruin fans not showing up to participate in the most important football hiring since Red Sanders.
That’s an old, tired yarn. The truth is what it has always been: the Rose Bowl has always been too big a stadium for early, inconsequential UCLA football, no match for lazy, sunny days and an off-campus student base still weeks away from the start of classes.
Jim Mora drew 71,000 for his debut, but a lot of that was there to see Nebraska. Rick Neuheisel's debut drew 68,000, but a lot of that was for Tennessee.
My counter-argument is that Kelly is not bothered by this. He took the job for the relative anonymity of it. He is a private man, with private thoughts, a private plan and very closed practices.
He likely cared not one hoot that his debut attracted a half-filled stadium and no national media. The press box was so wide open we could have played ping-pong.
Here is why I think Kelly isn't concerned:[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Kelly knows this job requires a lot of time to tinker and what better place to toil than at the Pasadena Public Pigskin Library?
Kelly took this job thinking he could win big, but not right away, also knowing that every bounce of the ball was not going to be scrutinized the way it would be in Knoxville.
Kelly senses there is something about UCLA that is mysteriously alluring—like a genie in a bottle. He doesn’t need people screaming in his ear while he’s trying to figure it all out.
It’s not going to be this year; UCLA has too many cobwebs to clean and kids to nurture.
The Bruins will be lucky, LUCKY to go 7-5 with a schedule that includes at Oklahoma (next week), Fresno State, at Colorado, Washington, at Oregon, USC and Stanford.
Oklahoma routed Florida Atlantic, 63-14.
"They're pretty good, huh?" Kelly said.
Truth be told, little about Kelly’s debut reminded you of anything he created at Oregon.
UCLA offense tried up-tempo, but nothing like the warp speed that had everyone tuning into the Oregon Ducks. The best the offense did early was force Cincinnati into a confusion timeout near the goal line.
Kelly has to plod slowly and methodically, probably the reason he started plodder Speight.
UCLA fans need to be patient and give Kelly some space and time. He's trying to morph one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks into a system that relies on a punishing run game. Go back and look at Kelly's offenses at Oregon—they led the Pac 12 in rushing every year.
Speight? Thompson-Robinson, Devin Modster?
At this point, it may not matter. Kelly is just trying to avoid 12-men on the field.
My guess is the winning will come, in due time, but no time soon.
When Kelly does put it together, the fans will start to show up, but only after classes start.
And if you want a big crowd on Sept. 1, don't book Cincinnati.[/membership]