UCLA football (4-8, 4-5 Pac-12) finished off its second season under coach Chip Kelly with a 28-18 loss to California (7-5, 4-5) at home on Senior Day. The loss marked the second losing season in a row for the program under Kelly,
1. The run defense struggled for the first time in a while
The story of UCLA’s defense all season long has been about its struggles with defending the pass, but it was the run defense that collapsed Saturday. Senior linebackers Krys Barnes and Lokeni Toailoa both missed almost all or the entirety of the California game because of injuries suffered versus USC, forcing younger players to take over.
One such player was sophomore linebacker Bo Calvert, who came in to play for the first time this season after serving an academic suspension for most of the year. Calvert collected seven tackles, including one for a loss, but the defense as a whole was unable to contain the Golden Bears’ run game.
California rushed for 182 yards on Saturday, the third-most yards that UCLA has given up this season. Its only worse performances came when it allowed 201 yards to then-No. 8 Utah on Nov. 16 and 309 yards to then-No. 5 Oklahoma on Sept. 14.
Considering that California is averaging 132.3 yards per game, good for eighth in the Pac-12, Saturday’s performance indicates that without their veteran linebackers, the run defense is predictably less competent. With Toailoa, Barnes, and redshirt senior linebackers Josh Woods and Keisean Lucier-South all graduating, that could spell trouble for next year’s squad.
2. While Chip Kelly is safe, not all of his coaches might be
Rumors swirled leading up to the Cal game about a possible exit for coach Chip Kelly to return to the NFL, but sources are now reporting that these claims are untrue and that Kelly is not going to be leaving UCLA this year.
The same can’t be said for his staff.
The Bruins are now 7-17 under Kelly, and while his job appears secure for the time being, changes do need to be made on the coaching staff, as patterns of continuing issues have emerged for the team, particularly in regard to the Bruins’ defense and its coordinator Jerry Azzinaro.
The UCLA defense is ranked No. 112 in the nation in total yards allowed per game, averaging 456.3 yards per game for the Bruins’ opponents.
With those types of numbers, it’s unlikely that any offense – much less the one the Bruins have run this season – would be able to overcome that sort of consistent opposition.
So if UCLA wants to win, changes need to be made. Kelly needs to take responsibility for his coaches and find a solution, even if it includes replacing Azzinaro after just two years with the program.
When something doesn’t work, a coach needs to fix it. And if he doesn’t, it’ll be Kelly who’s sitting on the hot seat.
3. The O-line crumbled without its leader
The Bruins’ offensive line allowed 37 sacks this season, an average of 3.08 per game, which places them 117th in the FBS.
That all came to a head when the unit allowed a season-high six sacks allowed to Cal on Saturday night.
And just as was the case with UCLA’s run defense, the offensive line was without its key senior, Boss Tagaloa, for part of Saturday’s game after he left because of injury. Without him, the pocket collapsed multiple times, and the O-line floundered.
After sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had to exit the Bruins’ previous game against USC early because of injury, the same thing happened against the Bears after being shaken up by the many hits he took.
With its one veteran graduating, this still-young O-line needs to step up and make changes in order to improve on this year’s subpar output to have any chance of protecting Thompson-Robinson next year.
4. Joshua Kelley is still a fan favorite
The time has finally come for redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley to leave UCLA, and his impact will be felt by the Bruins’ team and fans for years to come.
Kelley hit the 1,000-yard rushing yard mark for the second season in a row Saturday night, crossing the threshold on a 20-yard run on the Bruins’ second drive of the game, vaulting over a Cal defender to cap the run. The play eventually led to the first of UCLA’s two touchdowns, and temporarily excited a Bruin crowd that otherwise stayed relatively quiet amid the rain and the cold air.
Despite wrapping up his final game as a Bruin with just 76 rushing yards, Kelley’s impact on the team this season was more than just as a running back.
Kelley was all smiles in his postgame press conference, and now Bruin fans will have to follow along with his potential pro career to catch another glimpse of his smile.
5. The quarterback-receivers combo showed some promise
Amid the Bruins’ struggles in many aspects of Saturday’s game, UCLA’s pass offense was a bright spot. Thompson-Robinson successfully spread out targets among various receivers and tight ends and proved the offense’s chemistry has continued to build, despite what the team’s record might show.
Thompson-Robinson threw for 278 yards versus California before exiting the game, and his only turnover came on a tipped pass early in the fourth quarter.
With the struggles he encountered with the O-line and run game being stifled, the fact that he managed to find some success through the air is an indication of his ability to work through adversity.
Along with that, Thompson-Robinson’s targets were varied, as five different players recorded at least 30 yards receiving – led by redshirt junior tight end Devin Asiasi and his eight receptions that went for 99 yards. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kyle Philips also made his mark in the game, rolling over a defender to keep running after making a catch, leading to a 39-yard play to preserve a scoring drive.
All five of the players who broke the 30-yard mark Saturday are expected to return next season, so we can surely expect depth and experience in the receiving corps. Coupled with Thompson-Robinson’s two years of play under his belt, further improvements should be expected in the passing game come 2020.