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Chip Kelly, UCLA know they are far from finished product after Bowling Green win

PASADENA — Chip Kelly repeated a Winston Churchill quote nearly verbatim on Saturday when describing what gave him the confidence that UCLA would be able to fix its early mistakes during its season-opening win over Bowling Green.

“The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult,” the British leader once famously said.

The mistakes didn’t cost UCLA much, aside from a frustrating first half and having to play from behind against an opponent that did not have nearly the same level of talent. But Kelly still acknowledged that the game was far from perfect — and it wasn’t, at least at first.

The first quarter featured miscues that no team wants to make in its first minutes of live game action after months of preparations. There was a blocked Nicholas Barr-Mira punt that was returned for a touchdown, a muffed fair catch by Jake Bobo that led to a field goal, a line drive pass by Dorian Thompson-Robinson that went right to Bowling Green’s DJ Taylor and blown coverage leaving Falcons’ tight end Levi Gazerek wide open that should have been a 46-yard touchdown — had quarterback Matt McDonald’s pass been on target.

UCLA also had to burn a timeout for Bobo to switch jerseys before a Bowling Green punt — because another player on the punt return unit was also wearing No. 9. Barr-Mira, serving as both the kicker and punter, missed two field goals to go along with the blocked punt.

By the early moments of the second quarter, UCLA was trailing 17-7 despite more than doubling up Bowling Green in total yards. A smattering of boos came down from those who braved the triple-digit heat at the Rose Bowl.

Thompson-Robinson pointed to the interception immediately when asked to assess his performance — and not the nearly 400 yards of total offense and four touchdowns he accounted for.

Kelly told his team that he hoped this would be UCLA’s worst game of the year. Learning happens when there are mistakes worth correcting. His two big questions for his team were: Did they play with effort, and did they respond when things didn’t go their way?

“I thought both of those things, we accomplished today,” Kelly said. “But there’s still a ton of football that we have to get better at.”

The improvement seemed to start within the game.

Thompson-Robinson was nothing short of superb the rest of the way. Bobo, a Duke transfer who coaches have raved about, caught three passes, didn’t muff another punt and had some pivotal blocks that included clearing the way for Keegan Jones to score on a 52-yard catch-and-run.

And the defense, in its first game under new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, allowed one touchdown all game, limiting Bowling Green to 162 total yards. After struggling to defend the pass last season, UCLA gave up hardly any chunk plays in the opener.

“My D-line had a great night tonight,” said defensive back Mo Osling, who had five tackles, tied with JonJon Vaughns and Kenny Churchwell III for the team high. “I couldn’t even get any passes thrown to me because they were in the backfield so much.”

Chemistry played a role, according to linebacker Carl Jones. Jones described a “new feeling” on the defense this year, seeing the unit bond over the offseason.

“That showed on the field today,” Jones said. “When things got rough … we didn’t flinch.”

On one hand, UCLA’s second half was a clinic in how it would like to look the rest of the season. On the other hand, the opponent was Bowling Green, a MAC program that hasn’t had a winning season in six years.

That line of thinking could probably hold true for at least another two weeks. The rest of UCLA’s non-conference schedule features Alabama State — the first time it will face an HBCU — and Southern Alabama, which went 2-6 in the Sun Belt conference last season.

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