On a wonky night for UCLA, its defense giving out yardage like Rose Bowl flea market fliers and its offense a beat off its usual rhythm, one thing remained constant.
Coach Chip Kelly repeated his refrain about everyone picking their heads up in December to see whether their accomplishments over the course of the season were good enough.
Thanks to what happened on a frigid night at the Rose Bowl that chilled the Bruins to their football core, it might not be.
Before Saturday, UCLA was on track for a New Year’s Six bowl game. A few more wins and it could have ended that epic Rose Bowl game drought that goes back to 1999 or been selected for the Cotton Bowl as a gratifying consolation prize. Even the College Football Playoff remained a dreamy but not out-of-the-question possibility.
Now, after a horrid 34-28 loss to Arizona, the Bruins are on pace for a few other holiday destinations. San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl? El Paso for the Sun Bowl? San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, should bowl organizers be in a forgiving mood after the Bruins’ last-minute pullout a year ago?
All those fallback options remain in play for a team whose late-night stumbles dropped it into a tie with Washington for fourth place in the Pac-12 standings.
First things first: Forget about the CFP. No. 12 UCLA (8-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) will fall so far when the new rankings come out Tuesday that even a loud “Help!” echo won’t reach those in the top four.
Winning the conference for the first time since 1998? At this point, it might feel like going 99 yards in three plays. The Bruins are 1½ games behind the Trojans and one game behind Oregon and Utah. The Ducks and Utes playing each other next weekend in Eugene helps in that it will leave one of those teams with a second conference loss, but the tiebreaker permutations are so muddled that they’re not worth getting into for another week.
Even with a victory over No. 8 USC on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, UCLA might need some tiebreaker help to reach the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 2 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, but it would be a huge step toward the Strip. Besides the immediate catharsis of a second consecutive triumph over the Trojans, it would give the Bruins head-to-head wins against USC, Utah and Washington that would probably come in handy as part of tiebreaker scenarios.
But who’s kidding whom if UCLA’s defense can’t tighten considerably given its showings the last few weeks. What chance do the Bruins have of stopping USC quarterback Caleb Williams if they can’t keep Arizona’s Jayden de Laura — a plucky player, to be sure, but one leading what was then a 3-6 team — from doing whatever he wanted at the Rose Bowl?
De Laura’s ability to scramble and keep plays alive was the primary reason the Bruins trudged off their home field losers for the first time since falling to Oregon at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 23, 2021.
Afterward, Kelly appeared in denial about the issues that plague his defense, crediting De Laura instead of criticizing his overmatched linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.
“Our guys played with great effort,” Kelly said, adding of De Laura, “but he extended plays like nobody we played against this year and I can’t recall since we’ve been here a kid that’s run around like that, you know, and I think all those big plays he made when he was running around were the difference in the football game.”
(As a side note, Kelly appeared to have forgotten about the similarly slippery Jake Haener, who made plenty of heroic plays in leading Fresno State to a victory at the Rose Bowl last season.)
Asked about facing Williams, Kelly spouted his usual pablum about making corrections before practice this week. The problem is, he said the same thing after his defense gave up 18 unanswered points to Arizona State the previous week and appeared incapable of making any corrections against Arizona.
As bad as it was, UCLA’s defense wasn’t the only culprit Saturday. The Bruins failed to score at least 30 points for the first time since a 44-24 loss to Utah last season, having topped that threshold in 12 consecutive games. A blocked field goal, a dropped third-down pass by otherwise spectacular running back Zach Charbonnet and a fumble in the Arizona red zone before halftime all contributed to the upset.
Meeting with reporters just before Saturday turned into Sunday, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson appeared glum but not devastated, suggesting that the clock had not struck midnight on the Bruins’ season.
“We know it’s not the end, we know we have the rest of the way,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Now we just focus on the next one. Put this behind us, watch the film — watch the ugly, watch the good — and move on to the next one. We got a big one coming up.”
Unfortunately for the Bruins, their game against USC is not as big as it could have been.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.