Chip Kelly blew it. This time he really blew it, and who knows if he’ll ever get a chance like this again.
Instead of the crowning victory of his unspectacular five-year tenure at UCLA, the rivalry game against USC on Saturday night delivered more anguish.
The warm feelings about quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s development as the team’s undisputed leader as a fifth-year senior?
They evaporated into Pasadena’s night sky as the Bruins blew what remained of their 14-point lead.
The optimism about the program’s direction?
USC’s furious third-quarter comeback quashed that.
The hope that maybe, just maybe, Kelly could still make UCLA nationally relevant again?
The 48-45 defeat to the No. 8 Trojans served as the ultimate reality check.
The letdown at the Rose Bowl was more about this game, and even this season. This was as much about the certainty of what USC is becoming and the skepticism over what UCLA will look like in future seasons.
Because if Kelly couldn’t deliver a victory against the Trojans in this particular game with this particular Bruins team, what does it say about the future?
There will be no Pac-12 title for this year, the loss officially eliminating the Bruins from the conference championship game next month in Las Vegas.
There might not be a Pac-12 title next year, or the year after either.
USC is on its way to becoming what its administration envisioned when it hired Lincoln Riley. The Trojans could make the College Football Playoff this year. They figure to be regular participants in the coming years, as Riley has adopted what looks like a sustainable model for team building, his program as competitive in recruiting the country’s high-school talent as it is in attracting the best players in the transfer portal.
The Bruins are less varied in their approach, not necessarily by choice. Their recruiting classes under Kelly have diminished in size every year, increasing their dependence on the transfer portal.
What will UCLA look like next year?
The year after that?
The questions created urgency for the Bruins to maximize this season, in which they would have a fifth-year senior starting at quarterback in Thompson-Robinson, the conference rushing leader in Zach Charbonnet, and an experienced defense.
Their depth gave them a temporary edge over USC. Riley used the transfer portal to overhaul his offense but couldn’t do the same with his defense. Riley isn’t known as a defensive coach, but the Trojans’ defense will presumably be less awful in the future. The explosive offense now also had problems, as starting running back Travis Dye was sidelined because of a knee injury.
UCLA’s time to strike was now.
Riley downplayed the rivalry with UCLA in the week leading up to the game, as did his quarterback, Caleb Williams.
The nonchalance was reflected in how the Trojans started the game, the Bruins taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Williams had a pass intercepted for only the third time this season, throwing a ball right to linebacker Kain Medrano.
USC kicker Denis Lynch missed two field-goal attempts. Lynch would have missed a third, in the final second of the first half, but Kelly called timeout before the ball was snapped. Lynch retook the 49-yard kick and made it this time. The Trojans were suddenly down by just a point 21-20.
UCLA converted a field goal of its own on its opening drive of the second half, but the ensuing kickoff by RJ Lopez sailed out of bounds, placing the ball at the 35-yard line.
USC capitalized on the error, a 35-yard pass from Williams to Jordan Addison giving the Trojans their first lead of the game at 27-24.
Thompson-Robinson lost a fumble on UCLA’s next possession, and USC again turned the Bruins’ mistakes into points, with Austin Jones’ two-yard run extending the Trojans’ advantage to 34-24.
The Bruins spent the rest of the game playing catch-up.
Soon after Korey Foreman sealed USC’s triumph by intercepting a pass by Thompson-Robinson, Kelly was running on to the Rose Bowl field to congratulate Riley. Kelly’s team put up a fight, but fights from here will only increase in difficulty.
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.