Chip Kelly failed to pick up a single nonconference victory in his first two seasons with the Bruins.
His team lost the nonconference championship game to Fresno State in 2021 when he at last got the monkey off his back.
On Saturday afternoon, the Jaguars almost dealt the Bruins a similar hand, but Kelly’s team is now entering Pac-12 play with a perfect record.
With a 32-31 victory over South Alabama, UCLA football (3-0) narrowly avoided another Sun Belt upset by climbing out of an early 17-6 hole. The Bruins also had to come back from a fourth-quarter deficit of 31-23; to win the game with seconds remaining, they needed a field goal from Nicholas Barr-Mira.
UCLA has won five of its last six non-conference games after dropping its first six under Kelly.
All day long, the Bruins had good ball movement, but from the start, poor ball security and a lack of finishing ability cost them.
UCLA gained just one yard over the next three plays and was forced to settle for a field goal after linebacker JonJon Vaughns intercepted quarterback Carter Bradley on the team’s first drive of the day. Drive No. 2 also came to an end with a Barr-Mira field goal.
At that point, South Alabama led UCLA 10-6, but running back Zach Charbonnet appeared to have given UCLA the lead when he caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson for 7 yards.
However, the decision was reversed, and on the very next play Charbonnet attempted to punch the goal line but stumbled.
To increase their lead to 17-6, the Jaguars drove the length of the field while tearing up the Bruins’ secondary.
When Thompson-Robinson connected with Jake Bobo for a 9-yard touchdown, the Bruins finally ended a drive with a score. Before the half, the defense then successfully forced a punt. When UCLA started the second half with a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with receiver Kam Brown in the end zone, it appeared as though UCLA had finally taken control of the game.
But soon after, the Bruins’ penchant for failing to score was back, as they converted a recovered fumble into a 28-yard field goal rather than a touchdown. That gave the blue and gold a 23-17 lead, but the Jaguars quickly regained it after moving 67 yards in eight plays with the help of a long flea flicker and another short punch in.
On the following drive, Thompson-Robinson tried to throw to running back Keegan Jones, but Jones dropped it, resulting in a fumble that South Alabama was able to recover. The Jaguars gained eight points after two plays when they entered the end zone.
Thompson-Robinson connected with receiver Logan Loya for an 8-yard touchdown as UCLA carefully moved down the field in an effort to tie the game. The two-point conversion attempt by Thompson-Robinson, however, fell short, leaving the Bruins trailing by two points.
To set up the game’s final nine minutes, both teams exchanged punts, and the Jaguars did everything in their power to run down the clock and put pressure on the Bruins. For the first time all day, UCLA’s defense was about to force back-to-back punts when defensive lineman Sitiveni Havili-Kaufusi piled on late and was called for unnecessary roughness.
Within three minutes, South Alabama appeared to be up five points, but instead of taking the advantage, it opted to attempt a fake field goal. With the help of a successful sack, linebacker Carl Jones was able to return the ball to his offense, which took over at the 29-yard line.
With just over 90 seconds left, Jones’ run put the Bruins in the red zone after Thompson-29-yard Robinson’s completion to UCF transfer receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala. After another connection for 9 additional yards, Jones made it into the end zone on a carry. A few more runs laid the groundwork for Barr-game-winning Mira’s chip shot from 24 yards out.
Barr-Mira missed all three of his attempts at field goals in Week 1, but on Saturday, he was perfect 4-for-4.
UCLA only needed to punt once all day, but they needed every single one of those three-pointers. The Jaguars were outgained by the Bruins 405-399, and their 22 first downs were only slightly more than the Bruins’ 23.
South Alabama converted 9 out of 13 third downs, and they profited from UCLA’s two mistakes by scoring 14 points. The Bruins did not exert much effort to contain the Jaguars, yet they were successful in doing so.
With 20 of his 30 passes completed for 263 yards and three touchdowns, Thompson-Robinson had a passer rating of 173.3 compared to his opponent’s 131.1.