UCLA beats Cal to move to .500 for first time in Chip Kelly era

Ben Bolch
·4 min read
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, center, leaps over California cornerback Josh Drayden.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, center, leaps over California cornerback Josh Drayden, right, on a run as Evan Tattersall looks on during the Bruins' win Sunday. (Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

It was around 1 o’clock Friday afternoon when Chip Kelly learned his team might be able to salvage what was shaping up as a lost weekend. UCLA could hastily pivot to play California after the Bruins’ originally scheduled home opener against Utah had been canceled, though they would have to get ready in about 48 hours.

“Forty-three,” Kelly specified when it was over.

Time was on UCLA’s side given what happened Sunday.

Presented with the pop quiz of a new opponent on a new date, UCLA got almost everything right during one of the most complete performances of the Kelly era while showing what it could do with barely any preparation, not to mention sleep.

Paring down the offense and quickening the pace helped the Bruins post a 34-10 victory over the Golden Bears at an empty Rose Bowl, silence greeting the UCLA players before the game when they ran onto the field and the public-address announcer bellowed, “Here come your UCLA Bruins!”

The only drama came in the days before kickoff, UCLA (1-1) building a 17-point halftime lead while improving to .500 for the first time in Kelly’s three seasons with the team.

UCLA’s offense in the first half looked like a vintage Kelly variety … as in the 2012 Oregon Ducks. The Bruins were, well, a blur, increasing the tempo between many of their plays on the way to scoring 20 points in the second quarter.

“It helped out tremendously,” running back Demetric Felton Jr., who ran for 107 yards, said of the pace, “the way it seemed the opposing team couldn’t keep up with us.”

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson accounted for all four of his touchdowns — three passing, one rushing — before halftime and the Bruins’ defense was equally impressive in limiting the Golden Bears to 176 yards of offense. Thompson-Robinson finished the game with 196 yards passing to go with 52 yards rushing, his production more than offsetting a first-quarter interception that proved harmless when the UCLA defense rebuffed Cal on a three-and-out.

“Just go out there and play football, man,” Thompson-Robinson said of his mentality with the limited prep time. “I think that’s the biggest thing we did was treat this like backyard football back in youth days and get to wake up early and just play ball.”

The Bruins’ day had started with a 5:30 a.m. breakfast at the team hotel, followed by a brief meeting and the boarding of buses for a game that presented the great unknown.

Cal (0-1) had not played this season, its scheduled opener wiped out when one player tested positive for COVID-19 and local health authorities quarantined enough teammates to make playing untenable. The Golden Bears had been scheduled to play Arizona State on Saturday, but that game was also canceled because of rampant COVID-19 positives on the Sun Devils’ roster and coaching staff.

UCLA could empathize. The Bruins game against Utah scheduled for Saturday was declared a no-contest after too many Utes were sidelined by positive tests and contact tracing.

Asterisks could be handed out on both sides Sunday. Unlike UCLA, Cal had to travel on short notice and it reportedly practiced this week with just one defensive lineman who had been converted from the other side of the ball. But at least the Golden Bears had some idea of what they would be facing given that the Bruins played last week, faltering early in a 48-42 loss to Colorado.

UCLA watched tape of the Denver Broncos to prepare for new Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s pro-style scheme because he had last called plays in the NFL. What the Golden Bears unveiled looked better suited to Pop Warner.

Cal’s offense repeatedly stumbled outside of a 75-yard scoring drive in the second quarter, though a stout effort from UCLA’s new 4-2-5 defense heavily contributed to the Golden Bears’ woes. UCLA linebacker Caleb Johnson intercepted a tipped pass and the Bruins logged nine tackles for loss, including five sacks.

UCLA also stuffed Cal on both of its fourth-down attempts while unleashing a more aggressive approach.

“Seeing the ball and running to the ball is something we really preach as a defense that everybody has to do,” Johnson said, “and it resulted in me being in the perfect place to pick the ball.”

So much went right for the Bruins that they were able to shrug off a dreadful opening stretch in which they had a punt blocked and a pass intercepted, leading to an early 3-0 deficit. The rest of the game, UCLA looked far superior to an opponent picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North.

Maybe the Bruins should start planning for every game on short notice.

“It was weird not having time to prepare for a team,” Felton said, “but it just felt more natural and I honestly felt a lot more relaxed.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.