Chip Kelly would dismiss it, wouldn’t want to hear it and probably would cut off the suggestion in mid-sentence.
His UCLA Bruins have some momentum heading into their first bowl game in four years.
UCLA’s 42-14 victory over California on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl that included 32 consecutive points from the second to fourth quarters gave the Bruins a third consecutive victory for only the second time in Kelly’s four seasons.
That every triumph in this most recent run came over a team with a losing record won’t diminish that Kelly probably logged the victories needed to solidify his standing with only one season left on his contract.
The Bruins (8-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12 Conference) are probably headed to either the Las Vegas Bowl or the Holiday Bowl, with the latter bowl having a representative in the Rose Bowl press box Saturday. It will be UCLA’s first bowl appearance since it lost the Cactus Bowl in 2017.
“The way we built things these past few years, and all of it to come to fruition,” said Bruins tight end Greg Dulcich, who hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, “bowl game experience is something that I'm really excited about, being able to do that for the first time.”
Bruins running back Zach Charbonnet ran for 106 yards and a touchdown and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson accounted for 266 total yards of offense in what might have been their final appearances at the Rose Bowl. Neither player has said whether he will return next season or opt for the NFL draft.
Thompson-Robinson’s last pass found its way into the hands of receiver Kyle Philips in the back of the end zone on a four-yard touchdown, the second time Philips had slipped behind the Cal defense on a play in which he scored. Thompson-Robinson completed 19 of 28 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns while running for 102 yards in 13 carries.
A native of Las Vegas, Thompson-Robinson didn’t hide his desires for UCLA’s postseason destination, hoping for the Las Vegas Bowl.
“I’m speaking it into existence,” he said, “I can’t wait to go home.”
UCLA’s defense held Cal to 217 total yards and shut out the Golden Bears (4-7, 3-5) over the final 37 minutes after the Bruins had fallen behind, 14-10, midway through the second quarter. Cal had a fourth and one at the UCLA one-yard line in the final minutes, but quarterback Chase Garbers’ pass was broken up in the end zone by Bruins cornerback John Humphrey.
UCLA avoided the post-USC hangover in a big way, improving to 2-6 overall and 1-3 under Kelly in games the week after playing its rival since the conference expanded in 2011. Kelly declined to discuss his contract status when asked whether he would like an extension.
“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.”
UCLA recognized 21 seniors before the game, each player getting a hug from Kelly, though more than a handful might return next season given the extra eligibility granted by COVID-19. According to the school, only nine players on the team have exhausted their eligibility, including running back Brittain Brown, offensive lineman Paul Grattan Jr., linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, defensive lineman Datona Jackson and defensive backs Qwuantrezz Knight, Cameron Johnson and Obi Eboh.
Brown did not play for a second consecutive game after suffering an injury late in the Bruins’ victory over Colorado earlier this month and is expected to return for the bowl game.
“We’re practicing this week,” Kelly said, “so we’ve got another three or four weeks with them, so I told our guys, ‘Don’t get too emotional because it’s really not Senior Night,’ you know, the last game we play will be in our bowl game and that will be an emotional time because of the connection with this team.”
The first half was largely about mistakes and redemption.
UCLA’s Kazmeir Allen suffered the biggest blunder when a kickoff went through his arms for a fumble midway through the second quarter, Cal recovering at the Bruins’ 13-yard line. It momentarily looked like the Bruins might hold the Golden Bears to a field goal when Cal committed an inexcusable delay of game coming out of a timeout, forcing third and 10, but Garbers completed a 12-yard pass to the one.
Garbers ran into the end zone on the next play, giving Cal a 14-10 lead.
Allen would atone for his gaffe on UCLA’s next drive when he sprinted for an eight-yard touchdown on a jet sweep to allow the Bruins to regain the lead, 17-14, with 26 seconds left in the first half.
Garbers, the older brother of UCLA redshirt freshman quarterback Ethan Garbers, cost his team with two interceptions. The first interception, made by UCLA cornerback Jay Shaw, led to the Bruins’ first touchdown, on Thompson-Robinson’s four-yard pass to Philips in the back of the end zone.
Ethan Garbers got to play on UCLA’s final possession but did not throw a pass.
The veteran UCLA players were able to contemplate their progression under Kelly, 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.