Cincinnati spoils Chip Kelly’s UCLA debut with 26-17 win

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              UCLA head coach Chip Kelly yells from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Even before Chip Kelly took the field for the first time with UCLA, he realized he’s facing plenty of work to build a program that can measure up to his creation at Oregon.

The Cincinnati Bearcats were happy to show just how much work they’ve already done on their own rebuilding project.

Michael Warren II rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns, and Cincinnati spoiled Kelly’s debut with a 26-17 victory at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.

Bryan Wright forced a fumble that led to a tiebreaking safety with 9:45 to play, and the Bearcats’ defense limited UCLA to 306 yards in the first game of Kelly’s ballyhooed return to collegiate coaching after a six-year absence.

Kelly lost only seven combined games during his wildly successful four-year tenure with the Ducks, but after two unsuccessful NFL stops, he’s leading a rebuilding project at UCLA. In his debut, he frequently tried to run his famed offense with a freshman quarterback, center and running back after his starting QB got hurt.

“I’m disappointed in the mistakes that we made,” Kelly said. “Disappointed in the mistakes that we made as coaches, putting guys in position to make plays. … We can control our attitudes, and we can control our effort. Are we disappointed? Yeah. Anytime you put the amount of time we do into something, it hurts.”

Thanks largely to solid work by UCLA’s defense, the game was even in the fourth quarter. But shortly after Wright stripped UCLA freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and forced a safety, the Bearcats stopped the Bruins on downs at the UCLA 36.

Cincinnati then got its only offensive points of the second half with 1:44 to play on Warren’s third 1-yard TD run, setting off a celebration for the Bearcats and their hearty cheering section.

“We don’t want to look too far … (but) we’re going to enjoy this,” said coach Luke Fickell, whose team went 4-8 last season in his debut. “Winning college football games is not easy. We went through a lot of (losses) last year. There’s something we’re going to have to handle that’s a little bit different now, and that’s praise.”

Freshman Desmond Ridder passed for 100 yards and ran for 63 more after replacing senior starter Hayden Moore in the third offensive series for the Bearcats, but he struggled in the second half before the defense brought it home with a series of big plays.

Warren scored the clinching TD after the Bearcats initially lined up for a field goal, only for Fickell to change his mind after a UCLA penalty moved the ball from the Bruins 2 to the 1.

“It was a great team win, and I feel like it’s going to bring us together,” Wright said.

Kelly deliberately revealed little about the look and style of his first team at UCLA during the past months, but nothing was inordinately flashy or unusual about the Bruins’ game plan — and Thompson-Robinson was inconsistent after taking over for injured starter Wilton Speight. The senior Michigan transfer injured his back in the first half.

Thompson-Robinson flashed tremendous arm strength, but went 15 of 25 for 117 yards, missing several big throws.

“Just too many mistakes,” Kelly said. “But it’s about giving them an opportunity to play. … It’s a younger team. Not a lot of experience. That’s not an excuse. That’s just a reality.”

THE TAKEAWAY

Cincinnati: Despite the Bruins’ clear status as a work in progress, a win at the Rose Bowl is an enormous boost to Fickell’s rebuilding efforts after the disappointment of last season. Ridder got valuable experience if he turns out to be the long-term starter, too.

UCLA: In case anyone still doubted it, Kelly won’t transform the Bruins overnight, not with a thin roster coming off two losing seasons. But in Thompson-Robinson and Allen, Kelly has the ingredients for some excitement when his team gets up to speed.

SPEED KILLS

The only scoring play of the third quarter was UCLA freshman Kazmeir Allen’s thrilling 74-yard TD run through the heart of the Cincinnati defense after a simple inside handoff. The high school track star finished with only 103 yard because he curiously got just two more carries after his TD.

QUOTING KELLY

“The competitor part of you is disappointed, but you’ve got to correct it and fix it, because nobody is going to feel sorry for you,” Kelly said. “That’s how you grow. Sometimes you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone, and we got stretched out of our comfort zone today. There’s a first time for everything, and hopefully we can build upon that. Instead of looking at this as a negative, we’ll try to turn it into a positive.”

UP NEXT

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ road start continues at rival Miami (Ohio) next Saturday.

UCLA: A daunting trip to Norman to face No. 7 Oklahoma next Saturday.