UCLA football (0-2) fell in its home opener against San Diego State (2-0) on Saturday by a score of 23-14. The loss was the Bruins’ first to the Aztecs in program history as the team now stares down an 0-2 record for the second consecutive season under coach Chip Kelly. There is plenty to unpack, but here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game.
1. Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s job is safe – for now
Following a tumultuous season opener in Cincinnati on Aug. 29, in which Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed just eight of his 26 pass attempts, the sophomore quarterback bounced back with a much more respectable performance Saturday.
Thompson-Robinson finished 24-of-35 through the air for 199 yards, and had a beautiful touchdown strike to redshirt freshman tight end Greg Dulcich in the third quarter. He was also under pressure quite a bit, getting sacked three times behind an offensive line still missing redshirt junior Michael Alves due to a lingering back injury.
While Thompson-Robinson’s latest outing was efficient, it was not eye-popping by any means. However, as we’ve seen with Chip Kelly and quarterbacks, you don’t have to play exceptionally every week to retain the starting job.
Last season, quarterback Wilton Speight kept the starting job as long as he was healthy enough to play, despite failing to post more than 205 passing yards in five of his seven starts.
Given what we know about Kelly, it would be unreasonable to expect a quarterback change in the immediate future, but if UCLA is getting stomped by Oklahoma in the second half this Saturday, fans could get a taste of what redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Burton has to offer.
2. The secondary is still struggling
Junior cornerback Darnay Holmes missed his second straight game due to injury, and to say UCLA needs him back as soon as possible would be an understatement.
The Bruins’ secondary allowed Aztec quarterback Ryan Agnew to complete 23 of his 31 pass attempts for 293 yards and a touchdown Saturday, while letting receivers run wide open routes downfield in second- and third-and-long situations.
For the second straight week, the secondary looked lost against play action and rub concepts, which junior safety Quentin Lake, in his post-game press conference, attributed to poor communication.
However, poor communication can’t justify the amount of space that opposing receivers generated on passing plays through two games against this defense. San Diego State averaged nearly 10 yards per pass attempt and 13 yards per completion, which is unacceptable given that the Aztecs had just 108 passing yards total in their 6-0 season-opening victory over Weber State last weekend.
3. Krys Barnes stepping up again
Nobody stood out on the defensive end against San Diego State more than Krys Barnes.
The senior linebacker was making plays all over the field, and he finished the game just one tackle off his career-high of 12. Barnes also recorded a sack after bringing down Agnew in open space – something UCLA had been struggling to do all day.
In the absence of redshirt senior linebacker Tyree Thompson – who is out recovering from surgery – Barnes is averaging 10.5 tackles per game and owns three tackles for loss.
Operating without the other regular starting middle linebacker is nothing new to Barnes, though. Last season, Barnes took over as the top middle linebacker on the depth chart following a season-ending injury to redshirt senior Josh Woods, and logged 85 tackles in his absence.
Barnes is currently on pace to finish this season with 126 tackles, which would be the most by a Bruin linebacker since Eric Kendricks posted 146 in 2014.
4. Things won’t be getting any easier
Every loss is tough, regardless of the opponent.
However, losing to a Cincinnati team that went on to lose 42-0 the following week, and then to a San Diego State team that had failed to register a touchdown against Weber State the week prior, is a different kind of tough.
UCLA is staring down a schedule that is not kind by any metric, and it starts with hosting Oklahoma on Saturday. The Sooners are the No. 5 team in the AP Top 25, and they will have the chance to send the Bruins out onto the road for the following two weeks with a 0-3 record.
At this point, it is a real possibility that UCLA is headed toward a second consecutive 0-5 start. Before last year, the program hadn’t started a season 0-5 since 1943.
Assuming the Bruins lose to the Sooners, they will have to beat either No. 20 Washington State or Arizona on the road to avoid such a fate.
5. Chip Kelly’s seat may actually be getting warm
When Chip Kelly signed his five-year deal with the program, the thought of him failing to survive the length of that contract seemed blasphemous.
Yet here we are.
Kelly is 3-11 as UCLA’s head coach and the team hasn’t shown much progression through the first two weeks of 2019. The offense that made Kelly a household name doesn’t seem to be effective, and the defense can’t get off the field when it needs to.
There were also multiple points during Saturday’s game in which boos were heard from a crowd of just 36,951 – the lowest attendance at the Rose Bowl since 1994.
However, the Bruins have had to buy out former football coach Jim Mora and former men’s basketball coach Steve Alford in the past two years, and it is unknown whether the athletic department would even be willing to go that route with Kelly if things continue to trend south.
Kelly holds a $9 million buyout – a price tag arguably too steep to considering paying – but for now, Kelly deserves his fair shake of time and trust while he attempts to right the ship.