Chip Kelly said it himself. Now he needs to live up to his own words.
“I think the way you keep your entire team happy is that you're fair with everybody,” Kelly said in July at Pac-12 media day, “and then things are won on the field.”
By any objective measure, freshman Dante Moore has won the right to be UCLA’s starting quarterback. After splitting time with Ethan Garbers and slightly outperforming the redshirt junior in the season opener, Moore starred in his first start Saturday night against San Diego State.
In three quarters, Moore threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns — the latter statistic tying a school record for a true freshman — while showing the poise of a fifth-year senior during a 35-10 victory.
Afterward, Kelly both praised his quarterback and downplayed his prospects for keeping the starting job.
“Dante did exactly what we’ve seen since he’s been here in January, you know, we’ve talked about, there’s a maturity to Dante, he doesn’t get overwhelmed by whatever the situation is,” Kelly said.
“We still feel we have three quarterbacks and feel good about that situation,” Kelly said. “I think it’s comforting to know that all three guys can play for you and we’ll see where we’re headed moving forward.”
Cue the deep sighs. Here are five takeaways from the game Saturday that vaulted the Bruins (2-0) to 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 happy for as long as possible given their talent and commitment to the team.
They’ve all worked hard and deserve every opportunity to show they’re worthy of playing time. Collin Schlee also impressed Saturday in his season debut, breaking off a 23-yard run and completing one of two passes for six yards with the outcome long secured.
Kelly’s comments could be public posturing to show he’s got everyone’s back, but at some point his commitment issues could become a problem. If Moore continues to shine and isn’t rewarded as the permanent starter, that’s going to create its own mess.
Further complicating things might be next weekend’s opponent. North Carolina Central will be only the second Football Championship Subdivision opponent that UCLA has played in 104 years of football (though the Bruins have dipped into even lower tiers, going up against Manual Arts High and Occidental Frosh in 1919).
Kelly mysteriously held out star running back Zach Charbonnet against FCS opponent Alabama State last season and yanked quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson midway through a series in the second quarter even though the quarterback later said he wasn’t hurt.
Anyone seeking definitive takeaways in the quarterback battle might not be able to find them next weekend.
How ‘bout that defense?
Defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn might be on the way to at least one contract bonus.
With the caveat that it’s still early, UCLA ranks No. 42 nationally in total defense through two games, giving up 302 yards per game. The Bruins’ scoring defense has been even better, surrendering just 11.5 points per game to rank No. 19.
Lynn gets a $25,000 bonus if the team finishes in the top 50 nationally in total defense, with that amount doubling if the Bruins reach the top 25.
So far, his defense has been aggressive and relentless, piling up 20 tackles for loss and seven sacks while forcing six turnovers. The most impressive sequence Saturday came on a goal-line stand in the third quarter when San Diego State couldn’t move the ball one yard in three plays, with UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau intercepting a pass in the end zone on third down.
“There’s going to be adversity that’s going to hit every game and competitors respond,” Kelly said, “and that’s what we were proud of.”
A storybook rise
Through his first four college seasons, Alex Johnson had made a total of nine tackles with no other defensive statistics.
In his fifth season, the nickelback played in every game and became a steady contributor. In his sixth season, he’s on the verge of becoming a star.
Johnson made the first two interceptions of his career Saturday, both coming in the third quarter to help 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 broke up a pass. “The whole game was just a great testament to this team, how far we’ve come and really how much more we have to go. Everything that we’ve done so far is big, but we have so much more that we can build on, so many more plays that we can make.”
Another position battle
Quarterback isn’t the only position where the Bruins are well stocked.
T.J. Harden and Carson Steele continued to thrive as part of the “Hardened Steele” duo in which they combined to run for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Steele got a second consecutive start and ran for 84 yards in 12 carries, including a 13-yard touchdown on fourth and one as part of a T formation in the second quarter. Harden showed an incredible burst of speed on a 59-yard touchdown run later in the second quarter. He finished the game with 91 yards in nine carries.
Through two games, Harden has been slightly more efficient, averaging 8.4 yards per carry to Steele’s 6.4 yards. Anthony Adkins, a transfer from Army, has run for 26 yards in five carries over the first two games.
And on that note …
UCLA has earned a bowl bid 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 probably out this season because it recently sued the Pac-12 and the University of California regents over UCLA’s COVID-19 pullout hours before the Bruins were scheduled to play North Carolina State in 2021. The Sun Bowl is an unlikely destination because bowl games hate hosting the same team two years in a row for interest purposes.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.