The Wheel Remains Unbroken
The loss to Fresno State should be familiar to anyone who has watched UCLA for the past 20 years.
I’d like to talk about Game of Thrones for a second. I know this is the equivalent of asking to punch someone lying on the ground with a stab wound but bear with me.
One of the prevailing themes in the show was this concept of “the wheel”, this ever-spinning cycle where various powerful families in Westeros take control of the continent. The wheel comes to prominence when looking at the story of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled member of the former royal dynasty. Daenerys openly speaks about the wheel not as a good thing, but as a concept that needs to be destroyed if Westeros, and really the entire world, is to become a better place. The great tragedy of her story (beyond the ultimate tragedy of the show taking a steep nosedive in quality during its later seasons) is that she ultimately succumbs to the wheel, becoming a spoke in the system she sought to break.
By the show’s logic, Daenerys became unable to break the wheel because she was ultimately not a good fit for that role. The wheel is inevitably “broken” by the decision to place Bran Stark on the throne via an “election”, which is an unsatisfying resolution to one of the biggest themes of the series but at least it is a resolution.
How did I start to think about Game of Thrones over the weekend? Pretty simple: I watched UCLA football continue to do the same things it has done for the past few decades.
What prompted these thoughts was a post I made on Twitter in the aftermath of UCLA’s loss to Fresno State.
On its face, this did not feel like that hot of a take to make. UCLA is 2-1 on the season, with wins over a mediocre Hawai’i team and an LSU team that does not appear to be nearly as good as their preseason ranking indicated, but also a loss to a Fresno State team that, for most of the game, was not nearly as close as the final 10 minutes would seem to indicate. For most of the game, UCLA was outclassed both offensively and defensively and was only able to get back into the game thanks to an unreplicable set of circumstances.
So far this season, UCLA has put up some impressive offensive numbers. Even in this most recent game, where the offense only managed 81 yards at halftime, the Bruins were still able to string together enough plays to put up 37 points and 395 yards of offense. They have shown a strong rushing attack, and in this most recent game, they showed an ability to adapt if an opponent stacks the box by repeatedly beating teams in the passing game. I would not say the offense is elite, but it definitely qualifies as very good.
Yet UCLA also has a defense that is nowhere near as good. Ben Bolch posted some early season numbers and they aren’t pretty.
It helps to remember that these include the stats put up against a clearly-outmanned Hawai’i squad, but UCLA’s defense is, so far this season, just as bad as it has been in previous years. The blitz-heavy scheme has looked flashy but has not put up much in the way of quality results, and Fresno State showed a pretty easy blueprint to beating it consistently this weekend.
In summary, good offense, bad defense. An average team.
Yet the comment was met with mixed response. Some people responded in agreement, others demanding that more time be given. Some people responding were Fresno State fans delighting in having another medium through which to scream into the void. In all, it was a snapshot of a fanbase that is torn between people desperate to keep the faith and people who are tired of the same song and dance.
Chip Kelly is 12-22 so far at UCLA. I don’t bring this up to be mean, simply as a statement of fact. But with that kind of record, it is hard to give his program the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the days before Chip Kelly was officially hired. Those days when rumors were flying everywhere about Kelly’s landing spot, about whether he would end up in Westwood or Gainesville. Those days when inside sources proclaimed that Kelly had a handshake deal to take over as the new coach of the Florida Gators and that a meeting he was having with UCLA bigwigs was merely for show. I’ve been thinking about the joy I felt when it became clear that Kelly had decided to make his college return at UCLA and not Florida.
I was thinking about those days while I watched Florida take on Alabama this past weekend. The Gators quickly pivoted to their second choice, picking up Dan Mullen and not looking back. Florida is 31-10 under Mullen, with a strong defense and an opportunistic offense. Mullen has gotten the Gators to the SEC Championship Game once, been to three straight New Years Six bowl games, and has played Alabama better than anyone these past two years. They might not be at the consistent level of Alabama and Georgia, but Florida is able to compete with them on a yearly basis. That was evident this past Saturday when Florida came roaring back against the Crimson Tide and was a missed 2-point conversion away from tying the game late in the 4th quarter.
I thought about what Florida fans might be thinking about that last week of November in 2017. What if things had gone differently, and Chip Kelly ended up in Florida? How much of this would they have put up with? Would the pressure to win early have been strong enough to overcome his reluctance to recruit, or his reluctance to hire coaches based on qualifications rather than friendships? Would he even be employed at this point if he was doing the same things at Florida that he is currently doing at UCLA?
Maybe the most depressing part of this past game was how familiar the whole thing was.
UCLA has been in this spot before. Not just under Chip Kelly, mind you, but over the past few decades. The names on the jersey may have changed, but the results remained the same. Consider all the hallmarks of this game:
- An early, listless performance where the opposing team looks more prepared and hungry to win.
- A series of baffling choices on both offense and defense that digs a deeper hole for the Bruins.
- The trademark dumb penalties at inopportune times.
- Random, unreplicable changes in momentum that lets UCLA back into the game.
- The brief glimpse of hope that, somehow, UCLA will pull out the victory.
- A final drive by the opponent, methodical in its execution and precise in the way it destroyed any semblance of hope among UCLA fans.
- At home. Sometimes on the road, but mostly at home.
This was the Stanford game from last year. Or the Southern Cal game the week prior. This was Texas A&M in 2016 and Washington State in 2015 and Utah in 2014. You can even go deeper, like Oregon State in 2009 or BYU in 2007. For a truly lovely vintage, consider Notre Dame in 2006 or Arizona State in 2004.
There is, of course, the version of this game where the comeback is successful, only to find out in later weeks that it was fools gold, and that the opponent was not nearly as good as believed. Games like Washington State in 2019, Texas A&M in 2017, Texas in 2014, or Tennessee in 2008 (that one was particularly fun since it was followed up by an absolute stomping at the hands of BYU the following week). Maybe the ultimate version of this took place in 2000 when UCLA staged impressive victories over top 5 opponents Alabama and Michigan within the first three weeks of the season. Michigan proved to be a fairly good team, ending that year at 9-3. Alabama, not so much; the Tide would go 3-8 and fire their coach at the end of the season. UCLA ultimately would end up 6-6 and would continue their slow march down from the highs of 1998.
But there is a common denominator to these games: a UCLA team looks wholly unprepared for the game, stages a furious rally late, and either comes out on top or ends up giving the game up in the final minutes. In either case, the rally acts as a bit of fools gold, and many fans focus on the close nature of the game rather than the preceding events that necessitated the rally in the first case.
This game was no different. Fresno State came out like the team that wanted to prove its #13 ranking wasn’t a fluke, and seemingly had all the answers for what UCLA wanted to do on both sides of the ball. In the 4th quarter, the Bulldogs drove and found themselves with a first and goal while up 26-17. They were on the doorstep of putting the game away.
And then an inexplicable series of events took place. UCLA forced a fumble on a blitz that finally got home (but not before almost botching even this recovery attempt). Three plays later, a deep pass from Dorian Thompson-Robinson connected to cut the lead. The very next Fresno State play, UCLA held their receiver up (with forward progress mysteriously left uncalled) and stripped him of the ball deep in Bulldog territory. They would again score three plays later to take an improbable lead late. This all took place in the span of two minutes of game time.
But that’s the thing people miss about the comeback. Fresno State didn’t suddenly forget how to play football. The Bulldogs immediately went on another long touchdown drive to retake the lead, converting a 3rd and goal from the 19 in the process. UCLA scored to retake the lead, but with a minute left and one timeout, the end of the game felt inevitable. Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener was even dealing with an injury suffered on the previous drive, which UCLA was gracious enough to not take advantage of with extra pressure. In six plays, Haener marched the Bulldogs down the field, hitting chunk play after chunk play and never even needing to use their one timeout before scoring with the same play that got them their previous touchdown. Ballgame.
And much like those other games, this one was plagued with poor decisions by the coaching staff that set the team up for failure. You can point to the defense, which never truly adjusted and kept allowing Fresno State to repeatedly make the easy plays. Or you can point to the decision-making of Chip Kelly, from giving early-Heisman contender only six touches to going for two despite the situation not requiring it, on top of a bizarre time-out that essentially took away the option of a last-second field goal attempt.
Daenerys Targaryon made a lot of noise about being the force that would ultimately break the cycle of power in Westeros, but ultimately she ended up as just another spoke in the wheel.
The same thing can be said of Chip Kelly at this point. Kelly came in with loads of expectations; that he would be the one to drag UCLA football out of the doldrums it had been in for the past 20 years and bring them back to prominence. The expectation was that Chip Kelly would be the one to break the wheel and reestablish UCLA in the upper crust of college football.
But that has yet to happen. It certainly still has an opportunity to do so, but Saturday’s game featured enough of the same problems that have plagued the program that it is hard to be confident that things will ultimately work out. It’s a bit of hyperbole, but the upcoming game against Stanford now stands as the biggest game of the year, especially with the reinvigorated Cardinal possessing a coaching staff that is more than capable of recognizing the same flaws that Fresno State did.
UCLA football is still looking for someone to break the wheel and free it from the grips of complacency and mediocrity. The verdict is slowly coming into focus that Chip Kelly is not the person to do so.