UCLA is in its first year under Chip Kelly and the once-unrivaled college coach already has quarterback family drama on his hands, not to mention three hideous losses.
The most recent misstep(s) came on Saturday in an embarrassing 38-14 home loss to Fresno State. By the end of the night, the Bruins had amassed just 270 total yards of offense, aided by four turnovers and a passing game that completed just 41.7 percent of its attempts. They were so consistently pathetic that Kelly had players conditioning during the game. It was a shit-show from the opening snap, and one that got more embarrassing in the days following the loss. UCLA has the father of starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to thank for that.
Michael Robinson laid into Kelly from his Twitter account following the loss, calling Kelly’s run at Oregon a “fluke,” and blaming lazy play-calling for his son’s poor performance through the opening three games:
As with any situation where you have the parent of a coach talking shit, there’s truth to Robinson’s argument, just obfuscated by the obvious bias of the unavoidable frustration that comes with watching your offspring flail around on the field for two hours.
To start: Thompson-Robinson is okay, at best. In three losses against Cincinnati, Oklahoma, and Fresno State, the dual threat has thrown just two picks; in those same three losses, he’s thrown just two touchdowns. Against the Bulldogs on Saturday, he opened the game looking unsure or rushed every time he dropped back to pass; he fumbled and lost the snap on his second series and had another would-be pick dropped early on; and he routinely overthrew receivers standing in the flats or running out routes. His failure to be explosive or efficient in the passing game is largely why the UCLA offense is scoring just 17.6 points per game, and why they scored just 14 points against a member of the Mountain West Conference. Remember, this is a Chip Kelly program; scoring, and scoring quickly, is kind of his whole thing.
The question is how much of the blame belongs to Kelly, whose contract is set to pay him $23.3 million dollars over five years. With UCLA, Kelly touted a return to his days of crafting vicious Oregon rushing attacks, only now for his new players in powder blue. In reality, the Bruins’ running game is a bigger mess than the passing game—often times against Fresno State, the UCLA players with blocking responsibilities ended up doubling the wrong man, or would maintain contact when they were only supposed to chip block, leaving whoever was stuck with the ball regularly to be mauled by two or three white jerseys by the time they returned to the line of scrimmage. This resulted in the Bruins being held to 3.8 yards per rush on the evening, in line with their season average of 3.5.
The ineffectiveness of the UCLA running game left the offense averaging third down lengths of 8.8 yards entering Saturday’s game, which is so godawful I shouldn’t have to point it out. This is where Robinson’s critique of Kelly’s coaching rings true. Almost all night, the resulting play call on third down consisted of two receivers running routes spaced about three yards from one another; that’s how you get plays like the one below, where one linebacker is covering both the running back out of the backfield and the receiver behind him, leaving a safety and a corner available to knock the ball out of the hands of Thompson-Robinson’s only semi-open receiver.
Thompson-Robinson’s sole touchdown of the day came a few plays later, following a successful fourth-down conversion. Theo Howard was left wide open because one of Fresno State’s corners missed a very clear and simple switch, allowing Howard to get behind the defense and walk into the end zone. The rest of the game was a struggle to pick up the six- and seven-yard chunks a Kelly offense is supposed to reel off on the ground, with the Bruins settling instead for a yard or two when they could get it. Their only other score came after Fresno State fumbled a punt and gifted the Bruins the ball 17 yards from the end zone. With the talent UCLA boasts, even on a young roster dealing with injuries (like everybody), relying on a Mountain West defense to fuck up for scoring opportunities doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
As noted, the Chip Kelly Experiment is a very expensive one, even if it comes up short of the contracts fetched by Jimbo Fisher and Dan Mullen this offseason. While fans knew to temper their expectations before the season started—what with Kelly having to play nearly a dozen true freshmen—the end result so far has been a steaming pile of high-end bullshit. And any frustration coming from the fans or the athletic department or froggy parents is compounded by the simple fact that the Bruins haven’t come close to living up to internal expectations since their 10-3 finish in 2014. In the three years since, UCLA has averaged six wins per year, with last year’s 5-6 start by Jim Mora serving as the former Falcons coach’s last hurrah.
Three games is a small sample size, one that could very easily be proven to be little more than early-season jitters in the coming weeks—mercifully, the Bruins have a bye this coming weekend. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on anything changing when they head to Colorado. The offensive line looks confused, the running backs look battered, and the starting quarterback at UCLA is so pissed off that his dad is having to hop in the mentions to defend his son’s honor, and that’s before the Bruins have played a single in-conference opponent.
Kelly’s project was always going to be a rebuild, but at this point, maintenance seems like the only goal anyone around this program should be aiming for. If things don’t progress quickly, in-house drama like this could be the only reason UCLA makes headlines at all for the rest of the year.