Chip Kelly's seat is still hot: Takeaways from UCLA's loss to Oregon

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PASADENA, CALIF. - OCT. 23, 2021. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly on the sidelines.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly shouts from the sideline during a 34-31 loss to Oregon at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA squandered a major opportunity against No. 10 Oregon on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, losing 34-31 for its third straight home loss. After their morning started with ESPN’s “College GameDay” on campus, the Bruins walked off the Rose Bowl field with an injured starting quarterback and a thwarted comeback attempt.

Here’s what we can take away from UCLA’s latest loss:

Chip Kelly’s job is in the balance

UCLA coach Chip Kelly yells instructions from the sideline.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly yells instructions from the sideline during the second quarter of the Bruins' 34-31 loss to Oregon on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The final score was respectable and the end of the game was thrilling, but if it doesn’t add up to a win, it won’t be enough to silence critics calling for Chip Kelly’s job.

In Year 4, Kelly can still praise only his team's resiliency, which was on display as the Bruins (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12 Conference) nearly came back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit.

"If they continue to be resilient like they are," Kelly said, "then most of the time, you end up on the right side of things.”

Yet, more than halfway through his fourth season, Kelly’s teams have wound up on the wrong side of things most of the time. UCLA is 15-24 under the former Oregon coach.

The Bruins are in a critical stretch against top Pac-12 teams, beating Washington on the road and now losing to Oregon at home. A road game against Pac-12 South-leading Utah is an important game for Kelly to solidify his standing. A loss would make margin for error down the stretch, which includes winnable games against Colorado and California and the Nov. 20 rivalry game at USC, almost zero.

Penalties lurk

Though the Bruins grabbed two interceptions, they were left ruing the two that got away.

Two would-be interceptions were negated by offside penalties in the second quarter. Senior Quentin Lake grabbed an interception at the goal line, running more than 70 yards down the field in celebration, but he was forced to humbly jog back after the play was wiped off. He was called for another offside on the ensuing play, but the flag was declined because Oregon scored a touchdown. Linebacker Bo Calvert wiped off a pick from freshman Devin Kirkwood when the senior was caught in the neutral zone.

Linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath attributed the mental lapses to getting too antsy, even from experienced players like Calvert and Lake, who have 42 combined starts.

“It’s just attention to detail,” Genmark Heath said. “We’ve been in big situations and especially in big games, you want to be the person who makes the play. You want to have that little advantage over the other person.”

UCLA was flagged eight times for a loss of 51 yards, six of them coming before the snap. There were four false starts on offense, with two coming from tight end Greg Dulcich.

Leaky pass defense continues

UCLA defensive back Jay Shaw breaks up a pass intended for Oregon wide receiver Johnny Johnson III in the third quarter.
UCLA defensive back Jay Shaw breaks up a pass intended for Oregon wide receiver Johnny Johnson III in the third quarter. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

While Kelly remade UCLA’s offense and turned it into one of the more explosive and reliable attacks in the Pac-12, the defense, led by embattled defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, is still lagging.

The Bruins entered Saturday’s game ranked 80th in the country in pass defense efficiency and got cut up again in the pass game by Oregon’s Anthony Brown, who was 29 of 39 passing for 296 yards. This is a quarterback who was struggling so much last week against California that his own home crowd was booing him.

Brown’s two bad interceptions will ultimately save UCLA’s statistical ranks, but the problems plaguing UCLA’s defense, especially Kelly’s dedication to his long-time assistant Azzinaro, aren’t showing signs of going away.

Run game suddenly disappears

UCLA’s powerful run game disappeared at the most inopportune time. The Bruins had outrushed every opponent this season but were held to a season-low 110 against Oregon in 45 carries. After just four rushing yards in the fourth quarter, the Ducks gained momentum for 121 yards and five rushing touchdowns, including a 43-yard run from Brown.

Kayvon Thibodeaux is legit

Part of UCLA’s struggle on the ground was a standout game from potential No. 1 draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Oaks Christian High alumnus had nine tackles, eight of which came on his own, with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss that accounted for 25 yards. Oregon’s 14 tackles for loss as a team pushed UCLA back 41 yards.

“He’s what everybody thinks he is,” Kelly said of Thibodeaux. “He’s a heck of a football player.”

Even if he wasn’t throwing Dorian Thompson-Robinson to the turf, Thibodeaux was still haunting the quarterback as Thompson-Robinson was forced to rush throws or was hit while throwing. With UCLA down three late, Thibodeaux and Kristian Williams sandwiched Thompson-Robinson and knocked him to the grass on first and 20. Thompson-Robinson, after peeling himself off the ground all game, did not get up on his own this time and was helped to the sideline by trainers.

Thompson-Robinson’s availability for next week’s game against Utah is unclear. Kelly didn’t have an immediate update on the health of the quarterback, but Thompson-Robinson took to Twitter to reassure UCLA fans.

"I'm okay!" he tweeted Saturday evening.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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