A hush had fallen over the Rose Bowl in the final minute, the boos that serenaded UCLA players running into the locker room at halftime replaced by indifference among the few remaining fans.
Down to fourth-string quarterback Chase Griffin because of injuries, the Bruins were forced to run one last meaningless play against Arizona State. When Griffin’s pass fell incomplete, a teammate on the sideline threw up his hands in disgust and turned to leave the field.
As chants of “A-S-U!” filled one corner of the stadium near the end of the Bruins’ 17-7 loss, a UCLA fan behind the team’s bench rendered a different verdict.
“Figure it out, Chip!” he yelled.
The words begged two questions: How much longer will Chip Kelly be given? And is he the coach the Bruins really want to bring with them to the Big Ten?
What easily qualified as the most crushing loss of Kelly’s six seasons given the opponent and its own significant issues left UCLA (6-4 overall, 3-4 Pac-12) with a second consecutive defeat. It also renewed concerns about Kelly’s ability to win in the Big Ten if his team can’t beat a Pac-12 foe that was so shorthanded it used a running back and converted tight end at quarterback.
Even Kelly’s reputation as an offensive guru continued to take a significant hit. Going with Collin Schlee as the starting quarterback for the first time this season because recuperating counterparts Dante Moore and Ethan Garbers were available only on an emergency basis, the Bruins relied heavily on their run game.
They rolled up 183 yards on the ground but went 0 for 4 on fourth-down conversion attempts, running up the middle on the first three. Two of the fourth-down failures came in the red zone. Was Kelly’s play calling in those situations getting a little predictable?
“Yeah,” Kelly acknowledged, “but there’s also the school of thought that we gotta be able to gain one yard if we can gain one yard. But we’ll go back, obviously it didn’t work, so like I said that’s on us.”
The list of embarrassments also included UCLA failing to score after having a first-and-goal at the Arizona State five-yard line and a first down at the Sun Devils’ 18. The Bruins failed to show much imagination in getting shut out in the first half and matching their season low for points.
“We told them it was on us as coaches,” Kelly said of the message to his players afterward. “We didn’t do a good enough job to prepare those guys to play this football game.”
Meanwhile, Arizona State (3-7, 2-5) effectively offset the absence of two quarterbacks and seven offensive lineman with creativity. Repeatedly using the swinging gate play that bunched most of their offensive lineman on one side of the field, the Sun Devils produced 250 yards of offense one week after managing just 83 yards during a 55-3 loss to Utah.
1. UCLA defenders tackle Arizona State wide receiver Troy Omeire after he makes a catch in the second half. 2. Pasadena, CA – UCLA defensive back Devin Kirkwood breaks a pass intended for Arizona State wide receiver Troy Omeire in the second half. 3. UCLA quarterback Colin Schlee passes during the second half. 4. UCLA wide receiver Logan Loya can’t hang on to a pass from quarterback Colin Schlee as Arizona State defensive back Shamari Simmons pulls him down in the second quarter. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Running back Cam Skattebo fired a 25-yard touchdown pass to Elijhah Badger to give Arizona State a 10-0 lead late in the third quarter.
UCLA appeared in danger of being shut out after its next drive ended with running back Carson Steele getting one yard on fourth-and-two, leading to a turnover on downs. But the Bruins got the ball back after the Sun Devils couldn’t get a first down and intentionally took penalties on four consecutive plays to burn time off the clock.
Backing up on purpose backfired when UCLA parlayed good field position after the punt into quick points. Schlee eventually threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Logan Loya, and there was suddenly some life among the crowd of 56,436.
It quickly got sucked out of the stadium after the Bruins twice sustained Arizona State’s next drive with penalties on third down. Edge rusher Grayson Murphy gave the Sun Devils one first down with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play and cornerback Devin Kirkwood gifted them another with pass interference.
“That hurts,” Kelly said. “That’s on us and you can’t do that, especially in a tight football game like that.”
1. UCLA defensive back Kenny Churchwell III (23) celebrates with a teammate after picking off a pass against Arizona State in the first half. 2. Arizona State running back Cam Skattebo celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter. 3. UCLA quarterback Colin Schlee scrambles out of the pocket in the second half. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
After later converting a fourth-and-four, the Sun Devils stuck a fork in the Bruins on the next play. Momentarily running into a wall of defenders, Skattebo cut outside for a 17-yard touchdown that gave Arizona State a 17-7 lead with 3:07 left.
Schlee left with an unspecified injury two plays later, finishing a night in which he ran for 51 yards and completed 11 of 18 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown.
Barring a victory over USC next weekend at the Coliseum as part of a late-season surge that also involves triumphs over California and a bowl opponent, Kelly could face an unwelcome reckoning in the coming weeks, if not days.
His supporters can no longer point to a continued upward trajectory, the Bruins now unable to top last season’s 9-4 record. His overall record at UCLA is now 33-33, which would be below .500 if you take away two victories over Football Championship Subdivision teams.
There’s also concerns about Kelly’s lack of ambassadorship of the program further decimating an already lackluster showing in the name, image and likeness space, hurting not only the Bruins’ recruiting efforts but also their ability to retain their own players going into 2024.
What does Kelly see as the path forward amid a dramatic downturn?
“It’s us against the team, our rival, you know, next Saturday, and that’s what we talk about,” Kelly said, referring to the game against USC. “It’s always one game at a time.”
That is, assuming he gets there.