The end happened decisively. It happened with contributions from many. Most importantly for UCLA, it happened. The five-game losing streak that begun the Chip Kelly era at UCLA ended with a 37-7 win over Cal at Berkeley Saturday night.
The Bruins jumped out early, they jumped out often and they never had a significant let-up. The Bruins held the statistical edge across most categories, but not in a way that would lead to a 30-point margin of victory. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a significantly improved all-around performance. Running back Joshua Kelley had his best performance as a Bruin. But the difference Saturday was that UCLA played a nearly complete game on both sides of the ball. In doing so, they also ended an 11-game conference road losing streak dating back to the 2016 season.
The Bruins put up 348 yards of total offense, well below what they did against a better Washington team last week. Again, the stats were fine, but it is what they did with the numbers. Thompson-Robinson was an efficient, if not spectacular, 13 of 15 for 141 yards. But his game management was the best yet of the season. He didn’t take big losses or make big mistakes. He scrambled several times, avoiding the rush, and either scrambled for positive yards, threw the ball away, or in a few instances even kept his eyes looking downfield and found open receivers. Thompson-Robinson connected on his first nine passes of the game.
Kelley was the epitome of efficiency. He had 30 carries for 157 and three touchdowns and averaged a little over five yards per carry. He also had a couple of catches out of the backfield. It was his third straight 100-yard rushing game. He became the first UCLA running back with three straight 100 yard rushing games since Jordan James in 2013. While Martell Irby, Bolu Olorunfunmi, and Kazmeir Allen also saw snaps in the backfield, what was once a running game by committee, is now Kelley’s to own. The offensive line, which is a different group entirely with Boss Tagaloa at center, provided plenty of running space for Kelley, as well as protection for Thompson-Robinson.
But if you are going to play a complete game, you need the defense to show up as well. Cal was held to 310 yards of total offense and none of it was particularly damaging. Running back Patrick Laird was held to under 100 yards rushing. Quarterback Brandon McIlwain was 22 of 40 for 168 yards and two interceptions. He also had a fumble late in the fourth quarter that was scooped up by UCLA linebacker Keisean Lucier-South and returned 38 yards for a touchdown. Earlier in the quarter Lucier-South tipped a McIlwain pass, spun and found the falling ball for his first ever interception as a Bruin.
Kelly has said when the team wins you celebrate for about six hours and then get back to work. He is prone to saying he looks at “the micro” elements to see what specifics need to be improved upon. Certainly, there is a lot of material still to work on, but for those six hours of enjoyment at least, there can be the satisfaction that both sides of the ball stepped up.
UCLA opened the scoring with a five-yard Kelley touchdown run late in the first quarter that capped a 59-yard drive highlighted by Thompson-Robinson utilizing one of his new go-to receivers, Caleb Wilson. But in keeping with the theme of a complete effort, the Bruins defense held Cal to only 52 yards of total offense in the first quarter. The Bruins would add to J.J. Molson field goals for a 13-0 first half lead. While the scoreboard lead was not dominant, the flow of the game was. The UCLA offense had 199 yards in the first half while the defense held Cal to 108.
The Bears got their one touchdown on their only real sustained drive of the game to open the third quarter. McIlwain moved them 75 yards in 12 plays, mostly through the air. Laird took the last 15 yards in 2 carries to cap a drive that burned 6:22 of the clock and cut the UCLA lead to 13-7.
UCLA answered easily. On third down at the Cal 16-yard line, destined to settle for another field goal, Thompson-Robinson was flushed out of the pocket. He gathered himself, and then tucked the ball and ran for 15 yards to the one-yard line. Kelley finished the 83-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run and a 20-7 lead.
Throughout the night, the Bruins were picking up four to five yards on first down plays. It made the rest of the sequences much easier to execute. The increasing maturity of Thompson-Robinson in the pocket was also clear. He was able to get through progressions better Saturday night. His ability to buy time in the pocket allowed him to find Wilson or receiver Theo Howard even when designed plays were breaking down. As much as Kelly does not intend for Thompson-Robinson to become a running quarterback, there a couple of plays where the quarterback pulled the ball on a check-off and took off for the edge for positive gains.
Late in the third quarter UCLA went for it on fourth and two at the Cal 25. It was a clear sign of Kelly feeling the momentum of his offense. Thompson-Robinson moved the pocket and hit his running back Kelley out of the backfield for a seven-yard pick-up. Four plays later to start the fourth quarter, it was Kelley with a one-yard run for the touchdown and a 27-7 lead.
The UCLA defense kept giving the offense opportunities throughout the night. With the 20-point lead, Lucier-South got his interception. Later in the same quarter, linebacker Krys Barnes picked off McIlwain. That led to another Molson field goal. Lucier-South’s 38-yard scoop-and-score capped the scoring. In all, the defense forced five Cal turnovers, while the UCLA offense committed zero.
After the game Chip Kelly said, “I just like the energy that these guys played with tonight.” He said the players are starting to reap the benefits of their efforts. “We’re starting to realize that all that hard work they’ve put in has paid off for them.”
Kelley gave credit for his stats to his offensive line. “I wanna make sure these guys get credit every single week because those guys, they fight, man, they fight.”
He also talked about what the first win finally felt like. “This feeling, it feels a lot because we grinded, we worked hard and we trusted the process.”
UCLA hosts a wounded Arizona Wildcats team Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Quarterback Khalil Tate has been a nightmare in the past for the Bruins. But new coach Kevin Sumlin has tried to turn the dual threat into more of a pocket passer. Tate is also suffering from an ankle injury and was limited in Arizona’s loss to Utah Friday night.