UCLA's late-season surge probably solidifies coach Chip Kelly's once-shaky standing

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  • Chip Kelly
    Chip Kelly
    American football coach
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, left, congratulates running back Kazmeir Allen.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly congratulates running back Kazmeir Allen after his touchdown catch against USC on Nov. 20 at the Coliseum. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The offense has been among the most prolific in the nation over the last three games, averaging 49.3 points. The defense has considerably stiffened, posting two scoreless halves while preventing any late drama in three consecutive blowout victories.

UCLA’s recent run of dominance under Chip Kelly probably ensures that the coach will return in 2022 with a contract extension, barring a departure for the NFL or other unforeseen circumstances. The coach’s supporters now have a lot more to point to than a positive trajectory amid a bad record in his four seasons.

The record that’s freshest in the minds of those deciding Kelly’s future may be his historic beatdown of USC, the Bruins dropping an unprecedented 62 points on their rival. UCLA’s offense has been nearly unstoppable since halftime of the team’s Colorado comeback earlier this month, scoring 37 unanswered points against the Buffaloes and 32 unanswered points against California on Saturday during a 42-14 rout.

UCLA’s defense repeatedly answered the Victory Bell that rang on the sideline whenever the Golden Bears faced third downs, stopping them nine of 13 times in those situations and holding them to 217 yards of offense.

The thrashing gave the Bruins (8-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12 Conference) their most victories since 2015 and will probably send them to either the Las Vegas Bowl or the Holiday Bowl for the team’s first postseason appearance since 2017. A victory in the bowl game would give UCLA nine victories in a season for the first time since the Bruins were 10-3 in 2014 under coach Jim Mora.

Kelly seemed fully confident in his status when asked late Saturday whether he would like an extension of the contract that expires after next season.

“I don’t need to discuss my contract with you, so I’m good,” Kelly said. “I’ve always been good. So I have an agent and he takes care of things and that’s the way it works.”

Any contract extension would probably include a drastic reduction or elimination of the $9-million reciprocal buyout that’s set to expire Jan. 15.

Should Kelly return next season, he would appear poised for another winning record, given a nonconference schedule that features games against Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama — all at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins’ game against Alabama State will be their first against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in school history.

The roster could need an overhaul — or look remarkably familiar — depending on how many of the juniors and seniors with remaining eligibility decide to return. Among the team’s star players, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet, receiver Kyle Philips, tight end Greg Dulcich and left tackle Sean Rhyan all could come back in 2022.

Should Kelly be granted an extension, his detractors would not go into next season empty-handed. If the Bruins lose their bowl game next month, they would not have beaten a team with a winning record this season unless Louisiana State prevails in its bowl under an interim coach.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet celebrates his touchdown with teammates.
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet, center, celebrates his touchdown with teammates during the second half against California on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The Bruins were unable to sustain much buzz even with a winning record, averaging 36,364 fans over their final two home games. Their season average of 45,818 ranks second-lowest since they moved to the Rose Bowl before the 1982 season, topping only the 43,848 they averaged in 2019 during Kelly’s second season.

Kelly’s 18-25 record gives him a .419 winning percentage that ranks below Rick Neuheisel’s .429 mark that has long been considered the program’s low-water mark in the modern era. Kelly's teams also haven’t finished a season ranked or seriously contended in the Pac-12 South in four seasons, the Bruins’ three consecutive victories moving them into a tie for second place with Arizona State.

None of that could matter in the coming days if Kelly gets his extension. His veteran players savored their progression under the coach late Saturday night, going from 3-9 in 2018 to 4-8 in 2019 to 3-4 in 2020 to 8-4 in 2021 with one game left to play.

Said Thompson-Robinson: “This team took a lot of lumps, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Just the moments of adversity I got with my teammates, and all that bringing us together, finally paid off. We’re at an eight-win season and keeping it rolling.”

Said safety Quentin Lake: “We were down in the dumps the first two years. Honestly, it was tough because you want to win, you want to be successful. When things aren’t going your way, you might lose hope, lose a little bit of faith, but we bought into the program, bought into what coach Kelly had for us. Had a little bit more experience through the years and you see what happens when you got guys that bought in.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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