Instead of a grand finale, Chip Kelly gambled away the chance for national relevance

Instead of a grand finale, Chip Kelly gambled away the chance for national relevance

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 19: UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly shakes hands with head coach.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly, left, shakes hands with USC coach Lincoln Riley after the Trojans’ 48-45 win at the Rose Bowl Saturday night. With the loss to USC, Chip Kelly missed perhaps his best chance to make the Bruins nationally relevant. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Chip Kelly screwed it up. He really screwed it up this time, and who knows if he’ll ever get another chance like that.

Instead of the crowning victory of his unspectacular five-year tenure at UCLA, Saturday night’s rivalry game against USC provided more torment.

The warm feelings about quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s development as the team’s undisputed leader as a fifth grader?

They disappeared into the Pasadena night sky as the Bruins crushed the rest of their 14-point lead.

The optimism about the direction of the program?

USC’s furious comeback in the third quarter undid that.

The hope that maybe, just maybe, Kelly could make UCLA nationally relevant again?

The 48-45 loss to Trojans No. 7 served as the ultimate reality check.

The disappointment at the Rose Bowl was more about that game and even that season. This was about both certainty about what will become of USC and skepticism about what UCLA will be like in future seasons.

Because if Kelly couldn’t get a win over the Trojans in that particular game with that particular Bruins team, what does that say about the future?

There will be no Pac-12 title this year, the loss officially eliminating the Bruins from next month’s conference championship game in Las Vegas.

There may not be a Pac-12 title next year, or the year after.

USC is on track to become what its administration envisioned when it hired Lincoln Riley. The Trojans could make the college football playoffs this year. They will be regular attendees for years to come as Riley has adopted what appears to be a sustainable model for team building, his program is as competitive in recruiting the country’s high school talent as it is in attracting the best players on the transfer portal.

The Bruins are less diverse in their approach, not necessarily voluntary. Her recruiting classes under Kelly have gotten smaller every year, increasing her reliance on the transfer portal.

What will UCLA look like next year?

Who knows?

The year after?

Who knows?

UCLA coach Chip Kelly (left) walks to the sidelines during the second half of Saturday's loss to USC at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly (left) walks to the sidelines during the second half of Saturday’s loss to USC at the Rose Bowl. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The questions made it imperative for the Bruins to get the most out of this season, which would see them have a senior fifth-year quarterback in Thompson-Robinson, conference rushing leader Zach Charbonnet, and an experienced defense.

Their depth gave them a temporary advantage over USC. Riley used the transfer portal to revamp his offense but couldn’t do the same with his defense. Riley isn’t known as a defensive coach, but the Trojans’ defense will likely be less lousy in the future. The explosive offensive now also had problems because running back Travis Dye had to pause with a knee injury.

The time for the UCLA strike was now.

Riley downplayed the rivalry with UCLA in the week leading up to the game, as did quarterback Caleb Williams.

The casualness was reflected in the Trojans’ game start, with the Bruins taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

Williams had intercepted a pass for only the third time this season and threw a ball straight at linebacker Kain Medrano.

USC kicker Denis Lynch missed two field goal attempts. Lynch would have missed a third in the last second of the first half, but Kelly called a timeout before the ball was snatched. Lynch repeated the 49-yard kick and this time made it. The Trojans were suddenly just a point behind, 21-20.

UCLA converted a field goal of their own on their first drive of the second half, but RJ Lopez’s ensuing kickoff sailed out of bounds and placed the ball at the 35-yard line.

USC capitalized on the error, a 35-yard pass from Williams to Jordan Addison giving the Trojans their first lead of the game, 27-24.

Thompson-Robinson lost a fumble on UCLA’s next possession, and USC again converted the Bruins’ errors into points, with Austin Jones’ two-yard run extending the Trojans’ lead to 34-24.

The Bruins spent the rest of the game catching up.

Shortly after Korey Foreman sealed USC’s triumph by intercepting a Thompson-Robinson pass, Kelly ran to Rose Bowl field to congratulate Riley. Kelly’s team put up a fight, but the battles only get harder from here.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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