Across his first two seasons with the Bruins, Chip Kelly didn’t win a single nonconference game.
When he finally got the monkey off his back in 2021, his team dropped the nonconference finale to Fresno State.
The Jaguars nearly dealt with the Bruins a similar hand Saturday afternoon, but Kelly’s squad is finally entering Pac-12 play with a perfect record.
UCLA football (3-0) dug itself out of an early 17-6 hole to beat South Alabama (2-1) at the Rose Bowl, narrowly avoiding another Sun Belt upset with the 32-31 victory. The Bruins also had to overcome a 31-23 deficit in the fourth quarter, and they needed a last-second field goal by Nicholas Barr-Mira to finally pull ahead with time expiring.
After losing its first six nonconference games under Kelly, UCLA is 5-1 in its last six out-of-conference contests.
The Bruins moved the ball well all day long, but ball security and an inability to finish cost them from the very beginning.
After linebacker JonJon Vaughns picked off quarterback Carter Bradley on the first drive of the day, UCLA picked up just 1 yard on the next three plays and had to settle for a field goal. Drive No. 2 also ended in a field goal by Barr-Mira.
South Alabama went up 10-6 at that point, and UCLA looked like it had taken the lead when running back Zach Charbonnet caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The call was overturned, though, and Charbonnet fumbled at the goal line when he tried to punch it in the very next play.
The Jaguars marched the length of the field to go up 17-6, carving up the Bruins’ secondary all along the way.
The Bruins finally finished a drive with a touchdown when Thompson-Robinson found Jake Bobo for a 9-yard score, and then the defense finally forced a punt before the end of the half. It looked like UCLA had finally taken control of the contest when it opened the second half with a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with receiver Kam Brown in the end zone.
The trend of leaving points on the board returned soon after, though, as the Bruins turned a fumble recovery into a 28-yard field goal instead of a touchdown. That put the blue and gold up 23-17, but they immediately handed the advantage back to the Jaguars when they marched 67 yards in eight plays thanks to a long flea flicker and another short punch in.
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Thompson-Robinson attempted a pitch to running back Keegan Jones on the next drive, and Jones dropped it, leading to a fumble recovered by South Alabama. Two plays later, the Jaguars made it into the end zone and went up by eight.
UCLA methodically made its way down the field in an attempt to tie things up, culminating in an 8-yard touchdown connection between Thompson-Robinson and receiver Logan Loya. Thompson-Robinson’s QB draw on the two-point conversion attempt came up short, however, and the Bruins remained down two points.
Both sides traded punts to set up the final nine minutes of the contest, and the Jaguars did everything they could to eat up clock and put pressure on the Bruins. UCLA’s defense was about to force back-to-back punts for the first time all day, only for defensive lineman Sitiveni Havili-Kaufusi to pile on late and get flagged for unnecessary roughness.
South Alabama looked like it would go up five points inside three minutes, but it elected to go for a fake field goal instead of taking the points. Linebacker Carl Jones came through with the sack to get the ball back to his offense, which took over at the 29-yard line.
Thompson-Robinson hit UCF transfer receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala for a 29-yard gain, followed by another connection for 9 more yards, and a run by Jones got the Bruins into the red zone with just over 90 seconds remaining. A few more runs set up Barr-Mira’s chip-shot game-winner, which he drilled from 24 yards out.
Barr-Mira went 1-for-3 on field goal tries in Week 1, but was a perfect 4-for-4 on Saturday.
UCLA needed every last one of those three-pointers, and that was despite only needing to punt once all day. The Bruins just barely outgained the Jaguars 405-399, and their 23 first downs were just one more than their opponents’ 22.
South Alabama went 9-of-13 on third downs and scored 14 points off of UCLA’s two turnovers. The Bruins did not do much in terms of limiting the Jaguars, yet they came out on top as a result.
Thompson-Robinson completed 20 of his 30 pass attempts for 263 yards and three touchdowns, posting a 173.3 passer rating compared to his counterpart’s 131.1 mark. Charbonnet was ceding many of his touches to Jones down the stretch, but he still ended the day with 128 yards from scrimmage.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism