This post was updated Sept. 1 at 9:07 p.m.
With Chip Kelly behind the wheel, UCLA football was expected to speed through the ranks of college football.
One game against a mid-major program pumped the brakes on that plan.
Behind their potential offensive backfield of the future, the Bruins (0-1) were unable to sustain any offense against the Cincinnati Bearcats (1-0), falling 26-17 on Saturday night.
“Just too many mistakes, to be honest with you,” Kelly said. “It’s a younger team, not a lot of experience, and that’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality. So they’re going to get their experience and it’s going to be a baptism under fire.”
Even though Kelly’s offenses during his tenure in Oregon were known for their prolific output, UCLA only mustered 306 yards on 68 plays. The offense also produced four three-and-outs and two turnovers on downs.
The second of those, on the Bruins’ penultimate drive, came after Kelly’s decision to go for it on 4th and 1 from his own 36-yard line. True freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson called an audible but his pass flew behind redshirt sophomore receiver Dymond Lee and off his outstretched hands.
“I thought we had a good shot at it,” Kelly said. “We knew if there were extra guys in the box that we would have one on one with off (coverage) on our receiver. (Thompson-Robinson) made the right check in that situation, we’ve just got to execute.”
The Bearcats subsequently mauled their way down the field for running back Michael Warren’s third one-yard touchdown of the game – on a 4th-and-1 play. That score put Cincinnati up two possessions with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight’s UCLA debut lasted less than two quarters – he exited the game several minutes before halftime with a back injury after taking a hard hit at the end of a one-yard run. He had completed 8-of-12 passes for 45 yards and an interception that led to Cincinnati’s second touchdown of the game.
Thompson-Robinson didn’t fare much better.
In the true freshman’s collegiate debut, he only completed 15-of-25 passes for 117 yards, and only led UCLA to 180 total yards in the second half. Thompson-Robinson also had a crucial fumble that redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson recovered in the end zone for a safety that put Cincinnati ahead for good 19-17 with 10 minutes left in the contest.
“I know as a freshman, (he) definitely feels like it was his fault that we probably lost tonight,” sophomore corner Darnay Holmes said. “But he definitely shouldn’t think in that type of way.”
Drops, a prominent theme in UCLA’s offense in recent years, reared their head again.
Redshirt senior receiver Christian Pabico had a pass fly through his hands and off his helmet when he was a step behind the Cincinnati defense. But Thompson-Robinson also didn’t help himself by missing several wide open receivers.
“Today was a disappointing day, just overall,” Thompson-Robinson said. “That was my first college game. So I now know what it’s like. And just having that mindset. And now I’m prepared for next week, I know what next week will be like.”
UCLA tied the game early in the third quarter thanks to true freshman running back Kazmeir Allen. The California state 100-meter dash champion made one cut and outraced the defense for a 74-yard touchdown on UCLA’s second play of the second half. Allen finished as the Bruins’ leading rusher with 103 yards on five carries.
Redshirt junior Joshua Kelley, who started the game in his UCLA debut, and senior Bolu Olorunfunmi combined for 33 rushing yards on 15 carries, including Olorunfunmi’s one-yard plunge to open the game’s scoring.
“(Allen’s) another young kid that’s got a lot of talent, “ Kelly said. “We’ve got somebody there that has legitimate speed that if we can get him a crease, he’s got the ability to break something.”