A year-and-a-half into Chip Kelly’s tenure at UCLA, a couple of truths are evident. He stubbornly holds on to a system he believes in, regardless of immediate success. Former coach Jim Mora changed his offensive coordinator and schemes nearly every year. Kelly brought in his staff to run a defined system. The team is going to run it on both sides of the ball, whether it is working or not. He believes it will succeed at some point. The other truth is that Kelly does not believe in momentum once a game is over. Because he operates, “in the micro,” during the season, he moves from day to day, with no belief that momentum carries over from one game to the next or even to the next week of practice.
UCLA; Truth Be Told
Both of those “truths” will be challenged this week. The Bruins host Arizona State at the Rose Bowl early Saturday night, and if you listen to the words “between the lines,” or better yet, listen to the players, some of that rigidity is in jeopardy.
First to the issue of momentum. UCLA got a big win over Stanford last weekend. It was significant in that it ended a 10-year losing streak to the Cardinal. But it was also visually and statistically compelling because the Bruins played a near-complete game on both offense and defense. We have been waiting 18-months for the Bruins to turn the corner. They have mostly starts and stalls along the way. They ended last year with signs of the forbidden “M” word. But true to the Kelly Doctrine, momentum does not carry over to the next season. There are too many new players in and other players out for it carry over from December to Spring camp. This year has had fewer starts and mostly stalls.
But can a complete game be a sign of “propulsion?” Even we can’t say “momentum.” Stanford was using a third string quarterback and an offensive line that was so young and inexperienced, it made UCLA’s look like AARP members. But how about it, Coach? A complete game rolls over, right? “It’s an example, but as we tell our players, it’s not a badge you put on your chest. That’s a standard you have to hold yourself to.”
It would seem that a standard can be created from forward progress, (no momentum here), particularly when previous performances have been so lacking on defense. No, says Kelly. It is about the here and now and being in the micro moment. “You have to take care of the task at hand and I think if you fall victim to that, (thinking bigger scope), it doesn’t benefit you. The better we can stay in the moment, the better we’re going to consistently perform in the moment when we play on Saturdays.”
No momentum. Check. But Kelly reminds us at every single press gathering how young he considers this team. Well, sometimes there is no holding back youth, despite what your own theories are. Stanford’s offensive youth and inexperience were no guarantee of defensive success for UCLA. The Bruins have played against back-ups numerous times this year, and defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s unit has made them look like All Americans. But last weekend was different. The young Bruins were decidedly more aggressive on defense.
Linebacker Jason Harris says that was by design. “We have a pretty in-depth schematic program here and sometimes it gets a little complicated for us. But we just wanted to put that aside and fly around and not worry about making mistakes.” And did it create enough momentum to keep doing it? “Yeah, I think so, because obviously we saw a lot of success when we did that. I think it will carry on and I hope it does.”
Kelly would likely deny ever making a wholesale change halfway through the season. He would say it worked “in the moment,” and that it had been part “of the process” they had been working towards. But Harris said the change was all on the head coach. “It’s something we all say, but once our head man said, ‘I just want you to have fun. I want you to enjoy it.’ Once we heard him say it, we were like, ok, let’s go do it, let’s ball out.”
Does change create momentum? Or is it the other way around? Much like the age-old question of how many licks it takes to get the center of a Tootsie Pop, we are not likely to get an answer from Kelly.
One thing for certain is that this week’s Arizona State game is going to test the Bruins’ defensive change and their momentum. While some of us scoffed at the hiring of Herm Edwards last year, he has the Sun Devils program playing at a very high level.
ASU, (5-2 overall, 2-2 in conference), has one of the nation’s better running backs that too few people have seen because of the amount of games on the Pac 12 Network. Eno Benjamin ran for more than 1,600 yards last season. This year he has 633 and seven touchdowns. He averages four-and-a-half yards every time he runs the ball.
Freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels has big shoes to fill, replacing Manny Wilkins. While he does not have Wilkins-level stats yet, he has been mostly mistake-free. He has thrown for 1,635 yards and eight touchdowns with only two interceptions. The strange thing is for the weapons they have, the Sun Devils are only 105th in the country in scoring.
Kelly says do not get caught up in the numbers. “They played in really bad weather last week against Utah and against a very, very good Utah team. I would imagine if you look at those numbers before the Utah game, those numbers would have been a lot higher.” He said the talent is the talent. “You’ve got one of the premier running backs in the league and one of the really good, young quarterbacks in the league, so you are going to have to be prepared for all of that.” If UCLA reverts to the soft cushion defense, Daniels will pick them apart underneath.
One thing ASU does not have is depth across the board. Back-up running back Isaiah Floyd entered the transfer portal this week. The Sun Devils are down to just two active running backs, considering they are trying to redshirt freshman Demetrius Flowers. So, Benjamin will carry the load Saturday, no matter how heavy that load is. Third string quarterback Dillon Sterling is also leaving, so ASU is down to two quarterbacks. In fact, they are down to only 68 scholarship players; just a small handful more than the perennially “youthful” Bruins.
Could this be enough to motivate Kelly to insist Azzinaro hang on to the aggressive, flying to the ball style that worked at Stanford? Or would that be construed as a changing of the system? Or worse…momentum?