Mario Cristobal's team must regroup after 44-15 loss at Arizona, prepare for Kelly's UCLA Bruins
TUCSON, Ariz. — The Ducks don’t have time to drown in sorrow.
Not with Chip Kelly preparing to take another swim in the pond where he was once the big fish.
Nearly six years after leaving Oregon for the NFL, Kelly will return as UCLA’s coach to face Oregon this Saturday at Autzen Stadium (4:30 p.m., Fox).
The Bruins are off to a wobbly 2-6 start (2-3 Pac-12) and coming off a 41-10 defeat to Utah at the Rose Bowl.
But the Ducks (5-3, 2-3) have the same conference record after getting drubbed 44-15 by a mediocre Arizona team.
“It’s something that feels like a good punch in the stomach. It takes the wind out of you,” first-year Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said after his team followed up its disappointing 34-20 loss to Washington State in Pullman, Wash., with another pratfall in Tucson. “We’re not going to have any kind of sugarcoating or rah-rah speech in there. This is a legitimate gut check, look in the mirror.”
In the first halves of this untimely two-game skid, Oregon was outscored a combined 50-8 before the intermission, which led to an abandonment of the running game.
Justin Herbert led the team with 31 net yards rushing against the Wildcats. The junior quarterback was denied a touchdown in the final minute when third-string cornerback Azizi Hearn met him at the 1-yard line on third-and-goal.
On Oregon’s final snap, Herbert threw an incompletion to finish a forgettable night 24-for-48 passing for 186 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Travis Dye had 23 yards rushing and a lost fumble. Tony Brooks-James started in the backfield but finished with only 20 yards on five carries. CJ Verdell, playing through the pain of a hip pointer injury, matched Herbert with a team-high six carries for only 14 yards.
“We got behind the sticks early, we certainly got off schedule, weren’t running the ball well enough,” Cristobal lamented in the bowels of Arizona Stadium. “Found in ourselves in a situation where we felt we had to throw it a little bit more, and that didn’t work out too well either.”
Two weeks ago the Ducks were basking in the glow of what felt like a program-defining home win over rival Washington. The Huskies (6-3, 4-2) have also fallen on hard times, losing 12-10 at California to fall behind the Cougars (7-1, 4-1) in the North Division race.
“Not your ideal start to an away game,” said wide receiver Brenden Schooler, who caught a 7-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter but lost bragging rights to his brother, Arizona linebacker Colin Schooler, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles. “On away games you have to come out firing fast because the other team has the home crowd advantage. It seemed like we came out a little off, it wasn’t on point like we normally are. It was a little deja vu seeing that again.”
Now Cristobal will try to beat the Bruins while they’re still vulnerable.
Kelly, who has a five-year, $23.3 million contract with a $9 million reciprocal buyout, will be given time to patiently rebuild the program with the Los Angeles spotlight shining on the World Series, LeBron James, the red-hot Rams and the struggles of rival USC.
“It will be difficult, to be honest with you, because it’s a special place,” Kelly said of his trip back to Eugene at the Pac-12 media day event. “It’s one of the real hallowed grounds of college football. If you’ve ever played a game in the stadium, whether you were the home team or the visitor, you’ll remember it.
“It’s a special fan base.”
If Kelly doesn’t lead UCLA to a mild upset over the slumping Ducks, he will walk off the visiting sideline at Autzen with as many losses this season as he experienced during the magical four-year ride at Oregon.
“I grew up in kind of the Chip Kelly era, so it’s definitely going to be interesting to see,” Herbert said before the season. “I wish him nothing but the best at UCLA and I’m excited to see both our teams play. … It just adds to the competitiveness of the Pac-12. It’s already a really competitive conference and it’s going to be even more competitive now.”
Kelly posted a gleaming 46-7 record at Oregon from 2009 to 2012. Nick Aliotti, his defensive coordinator during the run, which included an appearance in the BCS national title game, two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl, said the Bruins don’t have the personnel to run the blur offense.
Utah held UCLA to 291 total yards (164 passing, 127 rushing).
“There’s no tempo,” said Aliotti, who knew it could be a tough year in Westwood after watching some of UCLA’s fall camp practices. “He’s taking the air out of the ball, he’s putting the quarterback under center, they’re taking their time trying to run the ball, use up the clock, play defense, which is so foreign to Chip Kelly as we know him offensively. He’s just trying to find a way to win games.”
In July, Kelly joked that if the Bruins didn’t have any wins Oregon fans would “be excited when we come showing up.”
UCLA beat California and Arizona before getting pushed back down the South Division standings by the surging Utes.
Kelly hasn’t developed or found the next Marcus Mariota yet at quarterback.
True freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson has completed 60.2 recent of his passes for 1,176 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Michigan transfer Wilton Speight has completed 57 percent of his passes for 413 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Bruins rank 116th in yards (346.1 ypg) and 119th in scoring (21.3 ppg).
“They don’t have what Chip needs to get his style of offense going,” Aliotti said. “In every program, offense or defense, it just takes some time to get the guys that fit in your system to do what you want to do.”
The momentum Cristobal had after knocking off Washington has been washed away with two inexplicably awful performances away from the friendly confines of Autzen.
If the Ducks can’t get their season turned around with Herbert, a potential No. 1 NFL draft pick, some fans might start to wonder what could have been had Kelly’s return to college football been a true Oregon homecoming.
“I think whenever you play against someone you know really well or a place where you’ve had success, and it’s been very good to you, there’s going to be some emotions,” Aliotti said of Kelly’s looming return. “It will be interesting to me the reception he gets when Chip and his team comes out on the field.”