Hernández: UCLA plays with purpose in loss at Oregon after two seasons of looking lost

Dylan Hernández
·4 min read
UCLA's Demetric Felton, left, and Greg Dulcich celebrate a touchdown against Oregon on Nov. 21, 2020, in Eugene, Ore.
UCLA running back Demetric Felton Jr., left, and tight end Greg Dulcich celebrate a score. Felton ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns and Dulcich had a touchdown grab in a 38-35 loss at Oregon. (Chris Pietsch / Associated Press)

Go ahead, say it’s because expectations were lowered by the previous two seasons under Chip Kelly.

Blame USC for failing to live up to its responsibility as the local standard-bearer.

The criticisms are accurate. They also don’t change what happened Saturday.

UCLA lost again, this time at Oregon, 38-35.

Only this defeat didn’t feel like the 18 others under Kelly.

More than the four turnovers they committed, more than the disastrous final play of the first half, what was distinct about the game was how the Bruins passed.

And rushed the ball.

And blocked.

And defended.

They knew what they wanted to do and they had the talent to do it.

After two seasons of looking entirely lost, the Bruins played with purpose, which is how they were in position to upset the 11th-ranked team in the country when they started their final drive with 1 minute 24 seconds remaining in the game.

This wasn’t a fluke. This was a display of their depth and culture, as nine of UCLA’s regular contributors were sidelined by positive COVID-19 tests and related contact tracing, including starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

“We’ve just got to get the head coach to stop making bad calls at the end of the first half,” Kelly said, half-joking and half-serious.

The reference was to a disaster that unfolded on the last play before halftime.

With the Bruins holding a 21-17 lead and the ball at their own 44-yard-line, Kelly called for quarterback Chase Griffin to throw a Hail Mary in the final seconds.

Griffin, a redshirt freshman who was making his first collegiate start, was smashed by defensive tackle Brandon Dorlus as he threw. Safety Jordan Happle intercepted the underthrown pass and returned it for a touchdown.

The Ducks went into the break with a 24-21 edge. UCLA trailed for the remainder of the game.

The turnover was one of four committed by the Bruins, each of which the Ducks turned into a touchdown.

Win only seven games over a two-year period, however, and the perspective changes. In the postgame video news conferences, Kelly and his players sounded more excited about what they did right than upset about what they did wrong.

Particularly noteworthy was the performance of senior running back Demetric Felton Jr., who carried the ball 34 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

“My O-line, they played their butts off today and I was super proud of them,” Felton said. “They made it easy for me to get five yards a carry so I'm just really proud of them.”

As a team, the Bruins combined for 267 yards on the ground. Their defense limited the Ducks to 88 yards rushing.

“That’s the part that hurts,” Kelly said. ‘I think we tripled their output in the rushing game. If you told me we were going to triple their rushing and we’d lose, I would be surprised at that.”

While UCLA’s aggression on defense made them susceptible to throws on the run by Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough, the approach provided the Bruins with a sense of identity, which translated into four sacks and 10 tackles for losses.

Osa Odighizuwa and Carl Jones each had 1½ sacks.

“Part of our plan was to kind of let those guys and the Osas of the world to pin their ears back and let them play and really capitalize on their athleticism,” Kelly said.

Perhaps most indicative of the team’s evolution was how Griffin played. Griffin was particularly effective in the first half, as he completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards. He finished the game with 195 yards.

“Chase is a real student of the game and has always been prepared,” Kelly said. “We didn’t really have to change much with Chase.”

So the Bruins have some players. They have ideas of what they want to do.

Now, they just have to win some games to justify Kelly’s $23.3-million contract and the team’s lavish feasts.

“We’re close,” Kelly said. “If they continue to play with this effort and this kind of mind-set, it’s a really, really good group to be around. They’re special.”

Kelly has made similar declarations in the past. But this didn’t sound the same.

Because the team didn’t look the same.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.