NORMAN, Okla. — As Chip Kelly walked and then trotted off the field in his gray cap and gray T-shirt and gray slacks and gray shoes on a gray Saturday, the forecast for the returned football innovator and his newly inherited UCLA program called for continued gray.
Their predictable and predicted 49-21 loss to No. 6 Oklahoma as a four-touchdown underdog Saturday, in which the Bruins served as fodder brought to a kingdom, as widgets in a win factory, might serve as some sort of reference point later on, something to pinpoint someday as evidence of how far they had to go. It also might not.
For now, UCLA’s 0-2 coach who once flummoxed the West Coast and other time zones from a four-season post at Oregon, works with a freshman quarterback with impressive polish in an interview room but a wait-and-see place on the quarterback learning curve. Only last Sept. 8, the one in 2017, Dorian Thompson-Robinson played for Bishop Gorman High School of Las Vegas, taking a 24-20 home loss in that natural high school rivalry against Miami Central, when then got stuck in Vegas for a while because of Hurricane Irma in South Florida.
This Sept. 8, Thompson-Robinson appeared on a hallowed ground in front of 86,483 fans.
So after his 16-for-26 showing in his first start with his one touchdown pass and the six sacks to which he was treated, Kelly noted the young quarterback’s maturity and said, “I think he’s got a really good feel for playing football,” as well as, “I’m really impressed with Dorian right now.”
Tight end Caleb Wilson said, “He’s getting better every game,” and, “He’s a confident guy,” and, “He’ll continue to grow in our offense,” and, “I really think he can do something awesome for us.”
Left guard Michael Alves said, “Oh, man, he’s a good quarterback. He’s a smart player. So 86,000 people, being able to deal with a silent count, all these things, is kind of impressive for a freshman quarterback,” as well as, “He’s starting to be friends with everybody on the line, the receivers.”
Cornerback Darnay Holmes looked across an autumn that has Fresno State and then a Pac-12 Conference schedule and said, “There are going to be days and nights when we’re contemplating on why we’re even playing,” but stressed that Kelly has been telling the players about the amount of time it took to build Rome.
Thompson-Robinson himself said: “It’s not hard learning everything. It’s being able to process it and really be able to go through your reads as fast as possible. It’s more processing than it is learning.”
In sum, then, Kelly, considered one of the people who took and shook the sport until it started going faster and faster and faster, deals now with something traditionally slow: progress.
His linemen learn to figure out complex blocking-scheme variables for each situation. His quarterback learns to make the throws faster.
“This team’s gonna compete,” he promised.
It’s all necessarily gray.
On the other side of Saturday, the Oklahoma side, boom. There was a head coach, Lincoln Riley, who, when Kelly got promoted to Oregon head coach in 2009, still served as a 26-year-old assistant coaching in the specialized role of “inside wide receivers” for Mike Leach at Texas Tech. There was one of the younger coaches who swooped into a world which Kelly and others had accelerated madly and giddily.
Now Riley has his usual band of players Oklahoma didn’t mind at all snatching out of Texas. He’s got a doozy of a redshirt junior quarterback, Kyler Murray, supplanting departed 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, and Murray makes both world-class throws and these running plays that involve dream sequences of a meandering or zigzagging elusiveness, the kind of plays that make you glad you came to the stadium just to watch a nine-yard run that got called back by an illegal block.
He can do the steady, and he can do the dazzling.
“He can sling the rock. He can run the rock,” UCLA’s Holmes said.
“The only guy I’d say I’m disappointed in today,” Kelly said, “is Billy Beane.” That’s a reference to the Oakland Athletics guru who already drafted Murray to a baseball contract and signed him for $4 million-odd. “Wish he gave the kid more money,” Kelly said, calling Murray “very special” and “dynamic to watch out there” and saying he “keeps things alive.”
In other words, Riley has the caliber of quarterback Kelly might have at some point when things get less gray.
Riley also has two wideouts, CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown, who wore Fred Biletnikoff jerseys to postgame interviews last weekend, symbolic of their motivation toward the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the game’s best receiver. Riley was asked if this kind of chutzpah bugs him, and said it doesn’t, that football is hard, and that, “If you don’t think you’re any good, you’ve got no chance.”
And they’re good enough to make you talk about a play that didn’t count, Lamb’s staggering sideline catch that involved rising and then using only his left hand, somehow cradling the ball with just that before coming down out of bounds.
“Was I surprised he caught it?” Riley said. “No. Was it awesome? Damn right, it was.”
Said Lamb: “I’m going to be honest. I haven’t caught a pass like that ever in practice. So it hit my hand, it just kind of stuck there and I just said, ‘Oh God, I almost caught this.’” He talked about his “arsenal,” saying with charm and pluck, “I had the one-handed catch in my arsenal before,” but that he usually tries to “secure” the ball.
And after he and Murray and Brown and others showed how far along is Oklahoma compared to Kelly and UCLA — and after Lamb’s seven catches for 146 yards that included his 35-yard touchdown catch that involved being airborne while being strong enough to win a wrestling match for it, and after his 63-yard punt return — somebody asked if maybe Odell Beckham saw his catch that didn’t count.
“I really hope he was watching,” Lamb said. “I should have hit him up on Twitter.”