Chip Kelly was asked by reporters last Friday about why some players were wearing orange jerseys at practice. He jokingly gave a technical response that perhaps belied the larger point: UCLA football is finally back.
“We’re playing Bowling Green in a week,” Kelly said. “We start next Saturday, Sept. 3. We’re going to play a football game. It’s supposed to be at the Rose Bowl, from what I understand.”
Indeed, a season featuring perhaps the highest expectations in the Kelly era begins Saturday with a matinee at the Rose Bowl against Bowling Green — the first of three nonconference games.
UCLA will then play Alabama State and South Alabama the next two weeks. If all goes to plan, the Bruins will travel to Colorado on Sept. 24 with a 3-0 record and brimming with confidence after three blowout wins.
In a coach’s world, though, it’s still one week at a time.
“Every week, you have to be prepared for whoever you’re playing,” Kelly said.
Bowling Green will be the first team from the Mid-American Conference to play in the Rose Bowl, and it will be the first matchup between UCLA and the 15,000-student university 15 miles south of Toledo, Ohio.
For Bowling Green head coach Scot Loeffler, the trip out west will be a “great opportunity to play a very good football team in an unbelievable venue.” Loeffler grew up throwing the football around on New Year’s Day, imagining that he was playing in the Rose Bowl Game.
“It gives me goosebumps,” Loeffler said. “The hair stands on your neck, on your arms. It’s an unbelievable venue. Always has been, always will. I think it’s my favorite bowl game, hands down.”
Bowling Green hasn’t had a winning season in six years, going 4-8 last year and 2-6 in conference play. The Falcons do have an experienced quarterback, though, with redshirt senior and Newport Beach native Matt McDonald entering his third season as the starter.
McDonald recorded 2,555 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He started at Mission Viejo High School and spent his first two seasons at Boston College before transferring to Bowling Green ahead of the 2020 season. McDonald’s father, Paul McDonald, played in the Rose Bowl as a quarterback at USC in the late 1970s, helping the Trojans capture a share of the national championship in 1978.
Kelly said Bowling Green seems like a pass-first offense, and praised McDonald for his ability to create, adjust at the line of scrimmage and make plays on the run.
“It seems like he’s a sharp, really well-coached kid,” Kelly said. “He also makes a lot of plays off-script, so when the rush gets home, he can stay alive.”
Bowling Green averaged 102.3 rushing yards per game last season, which was last in the MAC. That could mean a good opening-game tuneup for a UCLA defense which defended against the run well last season, but struggled against the pass. UCLA gave up 260.2 passing yards per game last season, last in the Pac-12.
Bowling Green’s signature win last season was a 14-10 road victory at Minnesota, a nine-win team that finished the year with a bowl win. The upset of a Big Ten opponent has the attention of future Big Ten member UCLA, with the coaching staff showing players film from that game.
“They play hard when you watch them on tape, so we’re very aware,” Kelly said. “Especially when you watch what they did to Minnesota, at Minnesota last year. They were really physical in that football game, so it’s a good football team.”
The Falcons also return nine starters on a defense which led the MAC in passing defense last year.
Bowling Green is much more experienced this year, according to Loeffler. Last year, it fielded one of the youngest rosters in the country and the coach said it cost them. Loeffler claimed his team could have won seven games last year, but gave away wins due to inexperience.
“I hope to goodness we can see us finish games,” Loeffler said. “We were inconsistent. We could beat anyone in the country and we could lose to anyone in the country, and that was evident.”
Last year, Bowling Green opened up the season with a 38-6 loss at Tennessee, with a roster full of teenagers.
This time, while the Rose Bowl is a different environment from Bowling Green’s 24,000-seat Doyt L. Perry Stadium, the coach doesn’t see the moment being too big.
“I think this team is much more mature,” Loeffler said. “I don’t think a stadium or a crowd … is going to phase them whatsoever. They’ve been there. They’ve done it.”