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Elliott: UCLA and Chip Kelly miss out on prime opportunity to repair their credibility

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PASADENA, CALIF. - OCT. 23, 2021. UCLA defensive back Jay Shaw is congratulated by head coach Chip Kelly.
UCLA defensive back Jay Shaw is congratulated by coach Chip Kelly after making an interception against Oregon in the fourth quarter of a 34-31 loss at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It felt like a turning point in UCLA’s season was unfolding Saturday afternoon, bringing with it a pivotal moment in Chip Kelly’s Bruins coaching tenure.

The promises he had made but hadn’t been able to keep, the flawed performances he hadn’t been able to correct, the team’s defensive follies — all of that was pushed into the background as the Bruins began to stage a gritty comeback against the No. 10-ranked Oregon Ducks on an unusual gray and misty day at the Rose Bowl.

Their fourth-quarter awakening was as unlikely as it was exciting. Oregon, the Pac-12’s lone contender for the College Football Playoff as the conference’s only one-loss team, seemingly had buried the Bruins on quarterback Anthony Brown’s 43-yard run early in the fourth quarter, continuing their pattern of outscoring opponents in the fourth quarter by better than a 2-1 margin. The Bruins had sabotaged their own cause by taking needless penalties, though that’s nothing new.

When they weren’t jumping offside or lining up incorrectly, they were dangerous offensively. They fought back to score twice and got the ball on an interception by defensive back Jay Shaw with three minutes left, giving Bruins fans in the crowd of 55,675 glimpses of hope. Fans were hungry for a signature win that would give them reasons to believe Kelly and the Bruins are on the right path, even though that path has had many frustrating detours and might still have some potholes ahead.

The Bruins couldn’t deliver. What could have been a statement comeback game for them on national TV ended with an interception thrown by backup quarterback Ethan Garbers, who had replaced injured starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson with UCLA at its own 39-yard line on a second-and-20 situation.

Gone was the Bruins' opportunity to make some noise on the national scene. Gone was Kelly's chance to repair his credibility and support among fans who have become weary, skeptical, or outright hostile over his inability to deliver the results he produced when he coached the Ducks. UCLA’s 34-31 loss to Oregon became a repeat of the off-key song Kelly’s teams have been singing.

Kelly acknowledged the Bruins (5-3, 3-2 in the Pac-12) had squandered a golden chance on Saturday to redefine themselves and realize the potential he continues to insist is there, results to the contrary.

“I won’t discount that. It was a huge opportunity,” he said. “We just came up a little short, so we still have to take the same approach. We’ll analyze the film, we’ll sit down with our guys [and determine] what corrections can we make? Which ones were good plays by them and you just kind of tip your cap and say, hey, that’s a heck of a play by that kid, and which ones can we fix, and can we clean up?”

The penalties, he said, are fixable. But he has said that before, not only this season but in seasons before that, and nothing seems to change. On Saturday they had eight penalties for 51 yards, but two wiped out interceptions. “Yeah, I mean, you have to clean those up, you know, those are self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said, a familiar refrain.

Inside linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath said overeagerness has been to blame in many cases. “I think, especially playing defense, you want to be fast off the ball. You want to be twitchy, and sometimes when you get too antsy, you tend to jump a little too fast and the offense gets lucky with the fake snap counts and whatnot,” he said.

“So, I think it’s just attention to detail, we’ve been in big situations and especially in big games, you want to be the person who makes the play. You want to have that little advantage over the other person. I think if we can eliminate those, we’ll be really solid.”

That’s no small “if,” as they’ve shown week after week with no indications that their talk will turn into action next Saturday against Pac-12 South leader Utah or at any other point in this season.

Kelly said he saw some encouraging signs that spoke well for the team's character.

“The effort these guys play with, the resiliency these guys play with, you gotta be proud of them,” he said. “You gotta look at the positives that you can take away from it and then also what can we correct because obviously it didn’t go our way. So when it doesn’t go our way, what is the reason for that and let’s make the proper corrections and let’s learn from this situation.”

Coaches often try to soften the impact of losses by framing them as learning situations. While there’s truth in that, if players don’t learn to correct their mistakes — and if coaches don’t make better play calls and put players in position to succeed — it’s just a loss. For the Bruins, Saturday's game felt like just a loss.

“The one thing with this team, you can’t fault them for their effort, you can’t fault them for their attitude, you can’t fault them for their resiliency, and I think it’s a special group from that standpoint. And they’re never out of it,” Kelly said.

“They’re going to compete and they keep playing, despite it and that’s part of what they have to learn. You have to learn to handle mistakes, what’s our recovery protocol? Football is not a game of perfect, but it’s a game of resiliency and if they continue to be resilient like they are, then most of the time you end up on the right side of things.”

They didn’t end up on the right side against Oregon, which is the way they’ve ended too many Saturdays.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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