The last few practices of a season that is officially going nowhere can be tough. UCLA is 4-7 overall, 4-4 in conference. They are coming off back to back drubbings, including to crosstown rival USC. They face Cal in the season finale Saturday night in the Rose Bowl. The Bears are 6-5 overall and 3-5 in Pac 12 play and just beat Stanford in their rivalry game. Oh, and Southern California is getting its first real dousing of rain in six months. Sound like a cheery scenario at the Wasserman Center for practice Wednesday? The Bruins are looking for light.
Head coach Chip Kelly still says it is about having good Wednesdays. “This group has practiced really well all year long. There is a resiliency to them. You love being around these guys because of how they approach things.” It remains about the process now as it did when the team was 0-0 in training camp.
Kelly and his Bruins are closing out what will be his second losing season, and the program’s fourth consecutive. He says getting this last victory is about the simplest of things, winning. Kelly does not subscribe to the theory that closing strong helps the perception of the program going into the recruiting season. “You should be grounded in the reality, not the perception. A win is a positive thing so that is what we are striving for. We are not trying to win because of what the perception would be. We are striving to win because that is what our job is. We’ve got to win this game because it is the game we are playing this week.”
And we know there is no talk of the “Big M,” momentum. “If you say momentum, then we wouldn’t win this week because we lost last week. So, you’d better hope we don’t believe in momentum. We have a bad today with the weather, is it going to be with us for the rest of our lives? Because the momentum of the weather is it is really bad right now.”
So, if there is not a perception at stake, and there is no momentum at hand, then what is the reward for Saturday night? Going 5-7 versus 4-8? Two wins more than last season versus one more? There is a whole postmortem to the season that needs to be addressed by all concerned once Saturday is over. But before then, the Bruins are finding things to play for; like their pride. And maybe some personal accomplishments.
Running back Joshua Kelley is just 16 yards shy of his second 1,000-yard rushing season as he ends his two-year playing career at UCLA. That is a big deal to the guy who helps get the holes opened for him, senior center Boss Tagaloa. “All the success to Josh because he works hard and is just a great guy overall. Off the field he is one of the best guys I have ever known. I just want him to get everything that he deserves. It feels great just helping him.”
Tagaloa is also ending his career at UCLA. After two years as the defensive tackle he was recruited to be, Kelly and offensive line coach Justin Frye converted him to center. After the three-game suspension that started his junior season, he has been the foundation of whatever good the offense has produced. He has been the constant on the offensive line, and a tutor to the younger players. Sophomore guard Christaphany Murray credits Tagaloa for his growth. “These past two years, he helped me grow up to be a man. Every single game, I am getting more IQ on the field. One thing I am going to take is just keeping myself and everybody accountable as much as I can.”
Murray, Tagaloa, and the rest of the line are going to have their work cut out for them Saturday. Cal has the best linebacker in the country. Didn’t know that? It’s because playing for Cal can be like living in the witness protection program. Very few people across the country see you or know you. Evan Weaver leads the nation in tackles by a lot. He has 90 solo tackles, (the next best is Dele Harding of Illinois with 52), and he has 164 total. He is averaging a nearly-unheard-of 15 tackles per game.
Weaver is constant activity from sideline to sideline and you are not going to find on him on the sidelines taking a play off unless he is hurt. He is going to make an All-American team or two from the more knowledgeable pollsters. The only thing preventing him from being unanimous across all polls is playing in obscurity for Cal.
Kelly is duly impressed. “He’s an instinctive football player. People run play action and it seems like he is underneath the route. And then people run the exact same action and hand it off and he’s making the tackle in the backfield. He’s always around the ball.”
Saturday is going to be an oddity. Two losing teams playing a night game on turf that has been subjected to days of inclement weather and doing it on Thanksgiving weekend. This isn’t the Iron Bowl, the Michigan-Ohio State game, or even the Egg Bowl, or other games that will draw large crowds regardless of weather or holiday weekend plans. There will the UCLA band, the players’ parents, a limited number of students, a handful of Cal faithful, and the rest is a crap shoot.
There are the farewells that come with Senior Day. For all of the well-worn reminders of this team’s apparent youth, there is a lot of experience that will walk off the Rose Bowl field for the last time Saturday. Kelley, Tagaloa, Barnes, Woods, Lucier-South, Lo Toailoa, Harris, Holmes. Names who have been a major part of what production there has been this season.
And then just like that, in the late, cold, wet Pasadena night, the lights will be turned out at the Rose Bowl for the last UCLA game this season. And the work will begin immediately on how to fix two years of results that are unacceptable to everyone involved in the process.