Chip Kelly said it himself. Now he has to live up to his own words.
“I think the way to keep your whole team happy is to be fair to everyone,” Kelly said at Pac-12 media day in July, “and then you win on the field.”
By any objective measure, freshman Dante Moore has earned the right to be UCLA’s starting quarterback. After splitting time with Ethan Garbers and easily outpointing the redshirt junior in the season opener, Moore starred in his first start Saturday night against San Diego State.
Through three quarters, Moore threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns – the latter statistic a school record for a true freshman – while displaying the poise of a fifth-grader in a 35-10 win.
Afterward, Kelly praised his quarterback and downplayed his chances of keeping the starting job.
“Dante has done exactly what we’ve seen since he was here in January, you know what we’ve talked about, Dante has a certain maturity, he doesn’t let the situation get the better of him,” Kelly said.
“We still feel like we have three quarterbacks and we feel good about that situation,” Kelly said. “I think it’s reassuring to know that all three guys can play for you and we’ll see where it goes.”
Call on the deep sighs. Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game, which had the Bruins (2-0) ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll and No. 25 in the coaches’ poll:
Look, we get it. Kelly wants to keep as many of his quarterbacks as happy as possible for as long as possible because of their talent and commitment to the team.
They have all worked hard and deserve every opportunity to show that they are worthy of service. Collin Schlee also impressed in his season debut on Saturday, breaking off a 23-yard run and completing one of two passes for six yards, securing the result.
Kelly’s comments could be public posturing to show he has everyone’s back, but at some point his commitment issues could become an issue. If Moore continues to shine and isn’t rewarded as a permanent starter, it will wreak its own havoc.
Next weekend’s opponent could make things even more complicated. North Carolina Central will be only the second Football Championship Subdivision opponent that UCLA has played football against in 104 years (though the Bruins have fallen to even lower ranks, facing Manual Arts High and Occidental Frosh in 1919).
Kelly mysteriously held off star running back Zach Charbonnet against FCS opponent Alabama State last season, yanking quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the middle of a second-quarter series, although the quarterback later said he was not injured.
Anyone looking for definitive insight into the quarterback battle may not find it next weekend.
How about this defense?
Defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn could be on his way to at least a signing bonus.
With the caveat that it’s still early, UCLA ranks 42nd nationally in total defense through two games, giving up 302 yards per game. The Bruins’ scoring defense was even better, giving up just 11.5 points per game to rank 19th.
Lynn will receive a $25,000 bonus if the team finishes in the top 50 nationally in total defense. That amount doubles if the Bruins finish in the top 25.
So far, its defense has been aggressive and relentless, racking up 20 tackles for loss and seven sacks while forcing six turnovers. Saturday’s most impressive sequence occurred on a goal line in the third quarter, when San Diego State failed to move the ball a yard in three plays and UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau intercepted a pass in the end zone on third down.
“There will be adversity in every game that competitors will respond to,” Kelly said, “and we were proud of that.”
A climb straight out of a picture book
In his first four college seasons, Alex Johnson had a total of nine tackles with no other defensive stats.
In his fifth season, the nickelback played in every game and became a consistent contributor. In his sixth season, he is on the verge of becoming a star.
Johnson made the first two interceptions of his career on Saturday, both in the third quarter, helping the Bruins hold San Diego State scoreless in the second half.
“It was a dream come true,” said Johnson, who also made a tackle and deflected a pass. “The whole game was just a great testament to this team, how far we have come and how much there is still to come. Everything we’ve done so far is great, but we have so much more to build on, so many more plays we can make.”
Another battle for position
Quarterback isn’t the only position where the Bruins are well-stocked.
TJ Harden and Carson Steele continued to have success as part of the “Hardened Steele” duo, combining for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Making his second straight start, Steele ran for 84 yards on 12 carries, including a 13-yard touchdown on fourth down and one as part of a T-formation in the second quarter. Later in the second quarter, Harden showed an incredible burst of speed on a 59-yard touchdown run. He finished the game with 91 yards on nine carries.
Through two games, Harden has been slightly more efficient, averaging 8.4 yards per carry, compared to Steele’s 6.4 yards. Anthony Adkins, a transfer from Army, has rushed for 26 yards on five carries in the first two games.
And with that in mind…
UCLA has earned a bowl berth in each of the last 12 seasons in which it started 2-0, including the 2022 and 2021 seasons under Kelly.
The Holiday Bowl is likely to be canceled this season due to recent lawsuits by the Pac-12 and the University of California Regents over UCLA’s COVID-19 withdrawal hours before the Bruins were scheduled to play North Carolina State in 2021. The Sun Bowl is an unlikely destination for this reason Bowl games hate hosting the same team two years in a row for interest reasons.