Whatever level of success the Bruins have for getting into post-season play this year, UCLA’s next critical step is in Utah this weekend.
Because of the loss at home against Oregon last weekend, the Bruins now play the Utes at 8pm local time Saturday. It’s the third game of what had previously been referred to as the gauntlet. The Bruins are 1-1 through the stretch so far with a win in Seattle against Washington, followed by a loss at home to Oregon. They still have an outside shot at the Pac-12 South title, but they need help getting there. One more loss in any of the last four games pretty takes them out.
That still leaves bowl eligibility on the line, as well as the quality of the bowl to be decided based on the team’s record. Six wins gets you into something along the line of the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. Obviously the more you win the better the bowl. San Diego and El Paso are still on the table. But you have you win three of the remaining four to get there. That starts Saturday night against Utah, which will be one of the most physical, disciplined teams UCLA faces all season. After that, it is Colorado at home, USC on the road, and Cal at home. Ideally no one would want to have a good bowl game, and the future of the head coach, resting on a three-game sweep to conclude the regular season.
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly did not want to address whether a 6-6 level bowl game is the floor or the ceiling for a team that has one of the most veteran rosters in the country. Kelly was asked to put on his big picture hat to comment on post season potential. “It’s not that I don’t wear it or don’t like wearing it. I don’t even own it,” Kelly said. As for basic bowl eligibility being a bottom or a great height, he said, “I don’t even entertain the question because that is not what we’re talking about.”
He relied on his day-by-day mantra. “We just want to have a really good Wednesday,” he said. “I know that is really boring to you guys. And for some reason you don’t accept my answer, but the answer’s always been the same.” He added, “We’re very outcome aware, but we’re process oriented. So then for me to go off script and say we do talk about that…we don’t.”
Kelly is consistent. This is who he is and what his answers have been since he got to UCLA. But the next step of the conversation turned to the fans who spend their money on tickets and UCLA football. Maybe they want to know if the coach thinks making any bowl game is the bare minimum they should expect or just a stepping stone to bigger post season games? “I’m not controlling their thoughts. I wish I was that strong.” Kelly said the fans can paint whatever pictures they want in their minds of what happens next, but it doesn’t impact the team’s effort to have a great Wednesday.
Fourth year junior defensive back Martell Irby took a different angle to the same question this week. “We try not to get caught up in it, but I would venture to say that that’s for sure the floor,” he said. “We started this journey a long, long time ago. It’s just about taking it one day at a time. Yeah, we’re aware of the bowl eligibility and everything that can come with getting a couple more wins and where we can end up. But we try not to allow it to get in our head because it is easy to get wrapped up in that and you miss what’s in front of you.”
The Game At Hand
With the Bruins officially putting any bowl thoughts on the sidelines for the fans to banter over, it gets us back to the here and now, which of course is Utah.
The Utes are the ones in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. At 3-1 in conference play, and 4-3 overall, they are tied for first with Arizona State in the division. But having beaten ASU, the Utes hold the tiebreak.
They will be playing the first half of Saturday’s game without their best defensive player. Devin Lloyd was ejected in the second half of the loss to Oregon State last week with a targeting call. The junior linebacker currently has 69 tackles with 13 for a loss, and four sacks. Kelly said that likely will not change the preparation for his offense. “There isn’t enough tape to say ‘Do they call things slightly differently when Devin’s in or Devin’s not in?’ We won’t know that until the game unfolds,” Kelly said.
The player the Bruins do have to prepare for is quarterback Cam Rising. He took over the starting spot three weeks ago. He has 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing 64 % of his passes. The Utes do not run much pre-snap motion compared to other teams. It is a matter of taking them as they line up. Kelly called Rising dynamic in that system. “He can beat you with his arm and his legs,” he said. “Once they inserted him in the lineup, they’ve really taken off.” UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert played against Rising in high school. He said this week that when his school, Oaks Christian, played against Rising at Newbury Park, the Oaks coaches put all of their most skilled players on defense for the game to try to keep Rising in check.
The two teams are statistically neck and neck in terms of total offense. UCLA averages 416 yards per game. Utah averages 409.
Defensively, Utah is third in the conference in total defense. UCLA is eighth.
The Quarterback Question
Aside from UCLA’s season being very much on the line Saturday, the story everyone is keeping an eye on is the health of starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He injured his throwing hand on the last series against Oregon Saturday and was replaced by Ethan Garbers. Thompson-Robinson wore a glove at practice Monday and threw very little. By Wednesday, the glove was replaced with a light wrap and Thompson-Robinson was fully participating in throwing drills.
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week he was certain of the UCLA quarterback situation. “He’ll play. He’s a tough kid, he’ll be there. I’d be shocked if he’s not there … he is lightning quick, like I said he’s like another running back on the field essentially,” he said.
The challenge is big for the Utes, as they are having to deal with injuries on the defensive line. “We’re starting three freshmen d-linemen. You never make excuses, because if you’re out there, you’ve got to perform. But we’re just not quite where we need to be up front yet. We’ve had flashes during the course of the year, but not quite enough consistency,” Whittingham said.
You Look Familiar
There will be familiar faces dressed in Utah red. Former UCLA receiver Theo Howard is taking in his sixth year of eligibility in Salt Lake City. Calvert will also be watching his two younger brothers, Ethan and Josh, in Utah uniforms. He said he never played against them when they were growing up. But he did acknowledge the three of them were responsible for major cosmetic damage to the Calvert house with their rough play with each other.
UCLA will do well to get out of Utah with its football house in good standing so as to keep a significant bowl in play.