UCLA defeats Colorado to become bowl eligible for first time under Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly finally did it, in his fourth season at UCLA. He got his team to qualify for a bowl game.
Left in salvage mode after back-to-back midseason losses, the Bruins overcame a sloppy start riddled with penalties and other blunders Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, finally wearing down Colorado with a rejuvenated rushing game during a runaway second half.
After looking as if it might be headed for a new level of futility under Kelly, UCLA overcame a 10-point deficit by scoring 37 unanswered points on the way to a 44-20 victory that made the Bruins bowl eligible for the first time since 2017.
They won’t end their 22-year Rose Bowl game drought after being eliminated from Pac-12 South contention earlier in the day, but the Alamo, Las Vegas and Holiday bowls remain in play.
UCLA senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson sparked the breakthrough by starring in the return from the thumb injury on his throwing hand that had sidelined him since late last month. He ran for a team-high 99 yards and a touchdown to go with his 257 passing yards that moved him past Cory Paus and into fifth place on the school’s all-time passing list with 7,028 yards.
Running backs Zach Charbonnet (67 yards rushing, three touchdowns) and Brittain Brown (58 yards, one touchdown) ran free while helping the Bruins (6-4 overall, 4-3 Pac-12) pile up 245 yards on the ground.
The UCLA defense shut out the Buffaloes (3-7, 2-5) in the second half while holding them to 117 yards of offense, notching a big stop early in the fourth quarter when cornerback Jay Shaw stuffed Brady Russell on fourth and one.
The Bruins made it a miserable homecoming for former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell in his first game back at the Rose Bowl since before his firing near the end of the 2007 season, outscoring the Buffaloes 34-0 in the second half.
UCLA receiver Kyle Philips returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and caught eight passes for 99 yards to help his team snap a two-game losing streak and a three-game skid at the Rose Bowl, where the Bruins had last won on that dreamy night in early September against Louisiana State. Home losses against Fresno State, Arizona State and Oregon followed, erasing any hopes of a major bowl bid for Kelly’s Bruins.
They can pad their record and move up in the bowl pecking order with victories over slumping USC and California in their remaining games.
Having entered the game as a 17-point underdog, Colorado held a 20-10 lead at the game’s midpoint after generating its highest-scoring first half of the season. The Buffaloes, who entered the game ranked No. 128 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams by averaging 266.7 yards per game, piled up 242 yards by halftime.
Colorado trampled the Bruins’ fading run defense to that point by gaining 155 yards on the ground. Jarek Broussard ran for 102 yards and Alex Fontenot thrived in short-yardage situations, scoring on two one-yard touchdown runs.
Midway through the second quarter, UCLA’s best two offensive plays did not count. Charbonnet had a 51-yard run wiped out by a holding penalty on tight end Greg Dulcich and Kam Brown’s 40-yard touchdown reception was taken off the board after he stepped out of bounds and came back in to make the catch.
The Bruins broke through after Philips caught a short pass and maneuvered around several defenders for a 40-yard gain to the Colorado 17. After a 15-yard run by Brown and a penalty on Colorado for a horse collar tackle moved the ball to the Buffaloes’ one-yard line, Brown punched it in for the touchdown on the next play and UCLA’s deficit was only 10-7.
Colorado countered after Broussard sprinted through the defense on a 46-yard run, finally getting caught behind by UCLA linebacker Carl Jones Jr. at the Bruins’ three-yard line. Fontenot eventually scored on his second touchdown run to make it 17-7.
Coming off a bye week, UCLA was not crisp in the game’s early going. Thompson-Robinson had a pass that sailed over Dulcich’s head intercepted. Kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira missed a field goal for the fourth consecutive game — he also missed a PAT in the third quarter when the ball hit the left upright — and the Bruins committed seven penalties for 42 yards by halftime.
Barr Mira’s 41-yard field goal on the final play of the first half shaved UCLA’s deficit to 20-10, but it was hardly an impressive first-half offensive display against a Colorado defense missing starters Nate Landman, Guy Thomas and Mekhi Blackmon.
In a symbol of their massive cleanup efforts, the Bruins committed only two penalties in the second half.
The narrative had changed considerably, the fans heading home satisfied for the first time in more than two months.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.