For the third time, Chip Kelly is going back to the scene of his greatest success, the place where he revolutionized the fabric of college football with dizzying offenses and kitschy uniforms.
For the first time, fans inside Autzen Stadium might feel like they’re seeing the same guy they remember.
His team is unbeaten. His offense is so good that it’s almost a shock when it doesn’t score. His defense reliably gets enough stops.
It’s the sort of thing that the man who vaulted Kelly into the national spotlight at Oregon always thought would happen for his protégé at UCLA, if a bit sooner than Year 5.
“It took a while,” said Mike Bellotti, who hired Kelly as his offensive coordinator before the 2007 season and backed Kelly becoming his successor as head coach two seasons later. “It certainly took longer at UCLA than I’m sure he thought it would. He chose to stay and work and it’s certainly paying off not just for Chip and for the team but for the entire university, and they’re one of the best teams in the nation.”
Bellotti sees two primary factors elevating the No. 9 Bruins (6-0 overall, 3-0 Pac-12) to elite status ahead of their Saturday afternoon showdown with No. 10 Oregon (5-1, 3-0). The first is a team that Kelly told him might be the most experienced he’s coached at the college level, including a fifth-year starting quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and 19 players in graduate school. The second is a defense that is finally generating sacks and forcing takeaways after four years of doing very little.
Another big difference: Kelly is clearly having fun.
“He’s glib, he’s not going overboard with the media, he’s answering the questions — every once in a while he’ll go off on a little bit of a lark and say something a la Mike Leach,” said Bellotti, referring to the Mississippi State coach known for verbal detours, “but yeah, he’s enjoying it and he’s excited about what they’re doing, the group of kids that they have.”
Kelly’s first two trips back to Autzen Stadium with the Bruins were duds. A 42-21 setback in 2018 gave the coach as many defeats in his first nine games at UCLA as he had in four seasons at Oregon while compiling a 46-7 record. A 38-35 loss in 2020 was far more competitive but equally disappointing after Bruins receiver Kyle Philips dropped a pass in the final minute.
By the end of that season, many doubted whether Kelly could generate a winning record at UCLA, never mind reach the sort of heights he did while taking the Ducks to four major bowl games in as many years. At one point, the coach was sold as “a used Chip Kelly in broken condition” on Craigslist, the vendor touting “some workable pieces in here if you are looking for 5-tight end play designs and are in need of tearing down your roster to its bones.”
In a sign of the depths Kelly once scraped, a victory on Saturday would represent his 10th consecutive victory — and move his overall record at UCLA to .500 for the first time.
Of course, that would be just a footnote to the bigger picture. UCLA would become the only unbeaten team in Pac-12 play and take its biggest step toward an appearance in the conference championship game on Dec. 2 in Las Vegas. It would also remain in the running for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Seduced by the story lines, ESPN dispatched its “College GameDay” crew to Oregon’s campus even though the game will be broadcast on Fox. Oregon will break out a special color combination on its helmets and uniforms, the pink feathers a nod to breast cancer awareness even if they might feel like a tribute to the coach who made it fashionable to be a Duck.
Kelly said he never had anything to do with the uniform design, even if he had his hands in everything else that made game days at Oregon remarkable. The Ducks have sustained their massive home-field advantage since his departure after the 2012 season, winning 22 consecutive games at Autzen Stadium and last losing to UCLA there in 2004.
“It’s always special going back there, it’s a special place in my life and there’s a lot of great people there that had a profound impact on my life,” Kelly said when asked about what might be his last trip to Autzen Stadium with UCLA bound for the Big Ten Conference in 2024. “But I’m not playing the game.”
Fortunately for Kelly, given his personnel, he gets to design the game plan. His offense has been nearly unstoppable during the team’s nine-game winning streak going back to last season, averaging 510 yards and 44.1 points per game. It’s added up to domination, the Bruins winning by an average of 21.6 points while posting only three victories in the streak by fewer than 24 points.
Kelly’s offense may not be as fast as it was when he was at Oregon, but it’s equally effective.
“He plays with differing tempos now, it’s not just all blur, some it’s check with me at the line of scrimmage, other it’s go fast, other it’s just no-huddle, which all puts pressure on the defense,” Bellotti said, “but he’s effective running the football, which is the same plan we had when he was here at Oregon.”
That running game features Zach Charbonnet, who averages a Pac-12-best 123 yards rushing per game. The stat that best illustrates his value: UCLA is 11-0 over the last two seasons whenever he’s reached 100 yards.
Running the ball could be a bigger factor than usual given a weather forecast that calls for an 80% chance of rain. Kelly prepped his team for wet conditions in practice this week, squeezing a water bottle to squirt his punt returners before they caught the balls hurtling toward them.
Any precipitation could water the bamboo that’s sprouting on both teams. At Pac-12 media day, new Oregon coach Dan Lanning used the same metaphor long favored by Kelly about explosive growth after a lengthy period of dormancy. Lanning’s Ducks had to wait just a few weeks for bud-break, posting one victory after another following that season-opening 49-3 loss to Georgia.
In many ways, the Ducks and Bruins are alike. Their offenses are among the most prolific in the nation, with Oregon’s (42 points per game) holding a slight edge over UCLA’s (41.5). The teams rank first and second in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (Oregon gaining 241.6 yards on the ground per game to UCLA’s 211.5), completion percentage (UCLA having completed 74% of its passes to Oregon’s 69.4%) and rushing defense (Oregon giving up just 98 yards per game on the ground to UCLA’s 99).
Bellotti said he’ll probably wear Oregon colors while sitting among Ducks fans to cheer on his former team. He’ll also keep tabs on his former colleague roaming the UCLA sideline.
“I’ll text him after the game, win or lose,” Bellotti said, “and say either, ‘Congrats, great job’ or ‘Tough one.’ ”
If it seems like old times for Kelly at his old home, then the only ones disappointed will be his old fans.