Could Chip Kelly’s Bruins Be Better Than You Think?

Chip Kelly knows something about his Bruins that you don't. (Harry How/Getty Images)

When people asked why I covered Arizona vs. UCLA last Saturday night, I didn’t pretend to know something that they might not, nor did I share my notion that the Bruins are better than people realize. I didn't want to put that Twitter target on my back.

So I responded with a simple “why not?”

Then came the onslaught of negative comments aimed at two of the bottom teams in the Pac-12 South – two teams with new head coaches struggling to navigate the very Wild West. Arizona and UCLA have several things in common, though. They have both beaten Cal, both coaches have enjoyed success in college football at other schools and both programs feel pressure to win.

Arizona’s trajectory this season has been up and down, with wins over Southern Utah, Oregon State and Cal, but bad loses to Houston and Utah. I feel for Kevin Sumlin, I really do. The Wildcats slow start coupled with Khalil Tate's injury has created a difficult situation in Tucson for Sumlin and it's only going to get tougher as Arizona faces the second half of a strenuous Pac-12 schedule.

UCLA’s path has been harder to define – Chip Kelly’s team started the season 0-5 for the first time since 1943. The losses looked bad and they kept coming with no end in sight. The team often appeared gassed, evidenced by the Bruins being outscored 83-31 in the second half of their first four games.

But when I watched them in person in Colorado, I saw some things that made me sit up and pay attention. The effort was there, the talent was present and the players seemed to be putting it together, albeit it slowly. After that loss, Coach Kelly acknowledged that hard work would be the key to the Bruins' future success.

“It’s not a magic switch that you flip. This game is about who works at it, who trains hard,” Kelly said after UCLA’s loss to Colorado in Boulder.

The Bruins then played Washington tough, which was even more encouraging considering the spread listed at us-bookies.com. Next outing, they earned their first win against Cal, appearing as if they were figuring things out. Kelly got to sing his first UCLA fight song. Finally, UCLA edged Arizona Saturday night in Pasadena with senior quarterback Wilton Speight finishing the game for injured starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson. While the margin of victory was just one point, the growth of this team is beyond what was demonstrated to start the season.

“That locker room is filled with winners, led by a coaching staff full of winners,” said Speight after the Arizona game. “We’re going to keep winning each day and winning each practice and stack little wins until the outcome is what we want on Saturday.”

Like Kelly said, it isn’t magic but rather the application of a simple philosophy: analyzing what you do well and building on that while simultaneously diagnosing what you are doing wrong and fixing it.

One of the things UCLA is doing well is utilizing junior running back Joshua Kelley, who leads the team with 104 carries for 569 yards and 5 touchdowns. Kelley averages 5.5 yards per carry and ranks 29th in the nation in rushing yards per game with 94.8.

Being balanced offensively is another way the Bruins can compete, which means giving the quarterback time to find and utilize his receivers. UCLA also needs to sustain its offensive drives in an effort to win the time of possession battle, which will help the defense stay off the field and rest. UCLA’s defense made big plays against Arizona, forcing a fumble and snagging two interceptions. Big plays breed lots of emotion, but harnessing the team’s energy for good is key.

“We are playing with emotion, not letting emotion play with us,” Coach Kelly said after the Arizona game.

He was referring not just to big plays but to the Bruins' issues with penalties. UCLA had 12 penalties against Arizona for a loss of 103 yards.

“We can’t be shooting ourselves in the foot in the penalty game,” conveyed Kelly post-game. “It’s good that we won, but the problems in victory are no less than the problems in defeat.”

This is what Kelly continues to preach control to his players. He implores them to focus on controlling emotions and effort, then capitalize on what can be controlled and let go of the rest. Effort has never been an issue with this UCLA squad. Kelly has made it clear that they compete, citing their hard work in practice and training. So getting his players to focus on those other mental things is part of the team's growth each week.

"We knew we could play like this” said Thompson-Robinson after the Bruins win over Cal. “It was just about finding that rhythm and everyone doing their job. Guys in the previous weeks were just trying to overcompensate for somebody else's job instead of just doing theirs."

And now, by the grace of the Pac-12 South Gods, the Bruins find themselves just one game behind both USC and Utah with the ability to take another big step forward by beating the Utes at home on Friday. It won’t be an easy task, but I think Coach Kelly has been preparing his team for these kinds of games.

A team that started the season 0-5 is no stranger to tough situations or playing against ranked teams, so entering this game a 10-point underdog is nothing really. UCLA has been to that dark place; its own version of the Upside Down and I can tell you the Bruins won’t go back without a fight.

“What we’re doing is working, so I think these two wins are a tremendous confidence booster,” the junior running back exclaimed after the win over Arizona. “We’re building off of this momentum. I can’t wait. The sky is the limit for us.”

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