A number of events conspired to bring the rare national big-game billing to a late October college football contest played in Los Angeles. UCLA had to win two road games in a row against bad teams to keep its record respectable. Oregon had to escape a dud performance at home against California. The rest of the country’s schedules had to fully abandon top-25 matchups for one week, clearing the way.
So here we were Saturday, with kingmaker ESPN dragging the nation’s eyes to Bruins-Ducks as if it were a midseason title bout. Whether viewers liked it or not, this is what they were getting — "College GameDay" in Westwood and A-team announcers Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler on the call in Pasadena. All day long and deep into Saturday afternoon’s frantic fourth quarter, UCLA did what we do well in this city — it put on a great show.
In the morning, the students showed up for "GameDay," but what college kid doesn’t like free stuff and getting on television? Later at the Rose Bowl, Chip Kelly’s Bruins put together two 14-0 thrill rides, but, problem was, those bursts were sandwiched around his former Oregon team beating the heck out of UCLA with a 34-3 run.
That humbling stretch, accentuated by countless self-inflicted UCLA mistakes, sent some Bruins fans heading for the exits early in the fourth quarter, before the UCLA entertainers, led by fearless quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, clawed their way back to stage a potential game-winning drive.
The Bruins ultimately succumbed, 34-31, when backup quarterback Ethan Garbers had a pass intercepted that sealed a nail-biting finish which validated ESPN’s decision to pay the West Coast a visit.
It was a great show, yes, but let’s not get carried away with our applause. College football fans in Los Angeles deserve substance along with the flare, and UCLA’s foundation in year four of Kelly’s tenure remained too faulty to hold off an Oregon squad that was begging to be put in its place.
Instead, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal can leave Southern California victorious once again, planting the Ducks’ flag further in the region where he plucked superstar defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux away from USC and UCLA. His roster is filled with Southland players who should not be playing college football in Eugene, but this will continue to happen as long as the Trojans and Bruins continue wilting to his will.
Saturday made it two years in a row that UCLA had Oregon squarely in its sights and let it slide. The Ducks embarrassed USC in 2019 and 2020 in the Coliseum, results that are a big reason USC athletic director Mike Bohn had no choice but to move on from Clay Helton.
Cristobal has plenty of help with Nike founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight writing checks, but he deserves credit for creating toughness in the Ducks that has translated into back-to-back Pac-12 championships and a statement win over Ohio State in Columbus Sept. 11.
Thanks to its latest survival, Oregon is still in play for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but Saturday showed once again that the Ducks are not some unstoppable force under Cristobal — not yet, anyway.
The Bruins jumped on them quick for 14-0 lead, but then the errors began. Offside penalties negated two interceptions that could have kept UCLA on the offensive. False starts put the Bruins behind the chains on several key drives.
“You gotta clean those up, those are self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said. “We’ll make corrections when we get back with those guys on Monday.”
Twice this year, I’ve been caught offside myself evaluating the Bruins. After their convincing win against Louisiana State, I found myself using the words “UCLA” and “playoff” together. After they recovered from their Arizona State loss with two wins they had to have, I picked them to beat Oregon, assuming the Bruins were ready to take advantage of the Ducks’ vulnerability.
As a passionate observer of college football in L.A. right now, it’s hard not to get a little jumpy at any sign of excitement. It’s been too long since competence and cohesion defined our crosstown rivals. Can you believe this? Both USC and UCLA have lost their last three home games.
USC is about to make a hire that will at least breed new hope for the Trojans. Only UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond knows what he needs to see from the Bruins the rest of the way to bring back Kelly for year five. If they lose next week at Utah, would 8-4 or 7-5 with a win over USC and a bowl invite be enough?
Once he knew "GameDay" was coming, Jarmond spent the week pleading with the UCLA community to care or at least act like it. He needed Kelly’s help Saturday to take it a step further — a step toward relevance not just nationally but most importantly within his own fan base.
That didn’t happen. And so Jarmond may have to resort to outright begging to get fans in the seats for UCLA’s last two home games.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.