Bruins End Season on Sour Note in Overtime Loss
December 24, 2020
So close, yet so far away. The UCLA Bruins football team is clearly improving, and they are competitive with every team in the Pac-12. But they still have areas of improvement needed, and they need to eliminate the mistakes that inevitably have cost them in games this season. The final game against the Stanford Cardinal was no exception, with Stanford coming from behind to defeat the Bruins on double overtime, 48-47, at the Rose Bowl last Saturday Night.
The loss dripped the Bruins to 3-4 for the shortened season, meaning the Bruins end up with a record fifth straight losing season, the last three under head coach Chip Kelly. Stanford ends the season with a record of 4-2 and they clinched their 11th winning season in the last 12 years. For UCLA, the frustration is that this team could have been 7-0, with four losses by six points or less.
Kelly reflected on the season and the reason for optimism for the future of UCLA football: "I think you look at how hard our players played. We lost a game by one, we lost a game by three, we lost a game by five, and we lost a game by six. There's great effort, great attitude. They gave everything. You're down 20-3 at halftime and they rallied. They did a great job of really rectifying what was not a really pretty first half."
This is all true. The Bruins were in every game and usually played with a lot of effort. In this game, the Bruins were down at halftime 20-3 after a lethargic first-half effort. For whatever reason, the Bruins did not match the energy level of Stanford in the first half. But in the second half, they looked like a different team. The Bruins scored 31 unanswered points to start off the second half, with the final seven points coming on a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Jay Shaw.
This gave the Bruins a 34-20 lead with 5:39 remaining in the game. The Bruins were in control and seemly headed for their first winning season since the 2015 season. But old habits are hard to break and the Bruins defense softened, leading to a quick Stanford touchdown to cut the lead to 34-27.
The key mistake for UCLA came on a third-and-eight from the Stanford 25-yard line with 1:43 remaining in the game. Stanford had one timeout remaining and a first down would have clinched the game for the Bruins. The Bruins were in field goal range and a field goal would have given the Bruins a 10-point lead, an almost insurmountable two score lead.
Unfortunately, an unforced fumble by quarterback Chase Griffin gave the Cardinal the ball back and they converted the mistake into a game tying touchdown, with Stanford quarterback Davis Mills connecting with wide receiver Simo Fehoko for a game tying 21-yard touchdown pass, sending the game into overtime.
With the Bruins trailing 48-41 in overtime, Griffin threw a perfect 21-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Phillips on a fourth-and-18 to cut the score to 48-47. Kelly decided to go for the 2-point conversion and the win but running back Brittain Brown, who led the Bruins in rushing with a career-high 219 yards, was stopped short of the end zone, giving Stanford a thrilling come-from-behind win in the Rose Bowl.
Kelly defended his decision to go for the 2-point conversion, stating that, "We were running out of players. We were just running out of some guys, so I didn't know how much longer we could continue to go. We were going to take a shot from the three [yard line]." That was a questionable decision, particularly since a run up the middle from the three-yard line is not an easy conversion.
Had the game gone to a third overtime, both teams would have been obligated to go for a two-point conversion if they scored a touchdown. It is more likely that Kelly did not think his defense could stop the Cardinal offense. Stanford had scored touchdowns on their last four offensive possessions. If that was the reasoning, then it would make sense, although the play call was still questionable.
Kelly is correct that the Bruins have reasons to feel good about their season. The rushing offense finished the season ranked No. 12 in the nation, averaging 230.6 yards per game. The scoring offense finished the season ranked 20th in the nation, averaging 35.4 points per game. The Bruins ranked 23rd in the nation in total offense, averaging 455.0 yards per game.
The offense is among the best in the country. On the other hand, the defense continues to struggle. The Bruins are allowing 274.1 yards passing yards per game, which ranks at 113th in the country. This was an improvement over the pass defense ranking from 2019, when the Bruins were ranked 129th in passing yardage per game allowed at 310.8 per game, ranking ahead of only New Mexico.
But it is still not particularly good, and the pass defense was what led to the comeback wins the past two weeks by USC and Stanford. In the two other losses, against Colorado and Oregon, self-inflicted wounds cost the Bruins. Against both Colorado and Oregon, the Bruins turned the ball over four times. The turnovers were the difference in those close losses.
If Kelly can fix the pass defense and eliminate or limit the mistakes, UCLA can be a tough football team to beat. The Bruins will get seven games at home next season, with the highlight being a non-conference matchup with LSU. UCLA is currently ranked 35th in FBS football recruiting and the 2021 class may still have more talent coming. LSU has the No. 4 recruiting class in FBS football and is loaded with talent.
With the success that Griffin had at quarterback this season, the Bruins could have a real battle on their hands for the starting quarterback position between the incumbent, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Griffin. Whoever wins the starting job, he must be able to take the Bruins over the finish line in these close games. A sixth consecutive losing season will not be acceptable to Bruin fans.