If you are Chip Kelly, the numbers have not been in your favor much at all in the year-and-a-half at the helm of UCLA football. UCLA’s numbers don’t lie.
A 3-9 record in 2018; a 1-5 record so far this season; a plethora of players leaving the program early, either of their own volition, or his; near-record low crowds at the Rose Bowl. And then there is the number Kelly really admits to having no insights on…Stanford with a 10 year/11 game winning streak over the Bruins. As UCLA gets ready to head up to Palo Alto for the annual game, it was inevitable that the topic would come up. Still, Kelly pleads a healthy level of ignorance on the history.
UCLA’s Numbers Don’t Lie
At practice Monday, he said he was not aware of Stanford’s decade-long dominance. “We lost last year by a touchdown. We were driving at the end of the game and couldn’t come up with it. It was a back and forth 49-42 game, but that is about the extent of it.” Kelly was asked if he knew the Bruins had not beaten the Cardinal in 10 years. “I’m not aware of that.” There was probably little point in asking him what he thinks about Kevin Craft being the last Bruins quarterback to beat Stanford. The numbers say he would not know who Kevin Craft is.
Indeed, it was October 18, 2008 when Craft threw a touchdown pass in the closing minute of the game for the 23-20 win at the Rose Bowl.
Of course, most of the seniors on the current UCLA roster were likely finishing elementary school the last time UCLA won this match-up. Kelly, with his process of keeping things in the “micro” during the season, says the streak is not an issue for his current team. “I don’t think anybody has even talked about it. I don’t think it can be a psychological thing if no talks about it. We’re talking about what percentage of blitz they have on third down and medium today.”
Kelly brought up the oft-repeated refrain about the youth of his team as a way for them to not have to worry about what happened in the past. “We’re such a young team, I don’t think that has any relevance to some of those guys. They were never here for it.”
Youth Counted And Miscounted
At various points of the season, he has claimed that UCLA is the youngest team in the country. The facts say he is close, but not correct. NCAA verified rosters show Nebraska (4-3 this season), and Purdue, (2-4), both have younger rosters. For that matter, Alabama has 80 freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores on their roster, (close to UCLA’s 87). We assume no one needs to be told what the Tide’s record is. Their youth, however, is mostly four and five star recruits just waiting for their shot in a game, whereas UCLA took on an exceptionally high amount of walk-ons this season just to be able to fill the roster spots.
That need was precipitated by numbers also; 38, to be specific. That is the number of players that have left the program since Kelly’s arrival in November of 2017. That does not include players leaving early for the NFL draft. Some left for personal reasons. Some were grad transfers, and that category rarely stays at their original school. And then there was the bulk of the departures that were based on playing time, or a lack thereof. Some just did not fit into the new coach’s plans. The topic came up again this week with receiver Theo Howard announcing he would redshirt this year and then enter the transfer portal as a grad transfer.
Unusual Comparison Point
Interestingly, Kelly says he has had conversations with Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall about what the transition was like when he came over from BYU four seasons ago. The numbers, in terms of players departures, are not readily available from the school, but Mendenhall has admitted in the past to needing to strip down the program in order to rebuild it. He went 2-10 in his first year in Charlottesville. In year two, 2017, he went 6-7, (including a bowl game loss), and his team climbed 14 spots in the S&P+ performance analytics rankings. In year three, 2018, the Cavaliers went 8-5, won a bowl game, and climbed another 27 places in the S&P+ index. That’s 41 spots of improvement in the analytics rankings over the first three years.
And while there had been an overhaul of the roster, the success was primarily built on the development of players who stuck around. Olamide Zaccheus, once a mid-three-star prospect, had just 800 receiving yards in his first two seasons and left as the school’s No. 2 all-time receiver. Cornerback Bryce Hall, a two-star recruit, led the nation with 24 passes defensed as a junior. Safety Joey Blount, barely a three-star prospect, earned second-team All-ACC honors.
The Cavaliers are 4-2 this season. Yes, the ACC is a dreadfully top-heavy conference. But when you are UCLA and getting whacked at home by Oregon State, you are in no position to throw stones. It is a long path for Kelly to get UCLA to the numbers Mendenhall has at Virginia. UCLA’s overall S&P+ ranking last year was 76th in the country. Their pre-season projection for 2019 was 63rd. But that would require a 5-7 record, which is highly unlikely at this point. It’s possible they will actually go backwards.
Back to UCLA’s current numbers, and the 11 straight losses to Stanford, (they played twice in 2012). Under “other” circumstances, this would be a Stanford team ripe for UCLA to beat and stop the streak. The Cardinal are not nearly as physically dominating as they have been in past years. Their quarterback depth chart for this week lists multiple potential starters, because even with the bye week, there are injuries to account for. But this is no “other” set of circumstances. The Bruins have been habitually poor on defense the last four years, and this season may be rock bottom. UCLA is currently 127th out of 130 teams in the country in total defense.
That means whether it is K.J. Costello or Davis Mills at quarterback for Stanford Thursday night, UCLA is going to be in for a difficult night. Costello, who has been sidelined for parts of the season with injuries, has only 471 yards passing on the season with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Still he presents problems for the UCLA defense. “Both quarterbacks are skilled in really throwing the ball. We saw K.J. last year and there were some times, I thought, in coverage we were there. But whether it was (J.J.) Arcega-Whiteside or the tight ends, he threw the ball only where they could catch it. It was as impressive of a performance from a quarterback I have seen from an accuracy standpoint,” Kelly said Monday. Costello’s numbers in last year’s game were 23 of 37 for 344 yards and five touchdowns.
For a decade, the Cardinal have been able to pound the ball on the ground, whether it was with Toby Gerhart, Christian McCaffrey, or Bryce Love. Now it is Cameron Scarlett carrying the load. He has 564 yards rushing but only two touchdowns. “They spread the ball out a little bit more. They are not as much smash as they were with Love and McCaffrey. But Stanford has a formula to run the football and they have always been good at it,” Kelly said.
The numbers on offense are only slightly better for Kelly. The Bruins rank 77th in the country in total offense. They entered practice this week unsure who the quarterback would be. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has practiced at full speed, coming off a leg injury that kept him out of the Oregon State game two weeks ago.
Bruins fans are desperate for any good news this year. So, at the end of Thursday night, there will be one set of numbers that will really matter. Those will be the scoreboard totals that mean UCLA has a one game “winning streak” over Stanford.