UCLA finishes the regular season Saturday night at the Rose Bowl against Cal. First on the list of priorities is the Bruins need to ditch the USC hangover. A win against Cal gets UCLA to 8-4 and improves the bowl status for the Bruins. Cal is 4-6 overall. If Cal wins Saturday and then against USC the following week in a makeup game, the Bears become bowl eligible.
While the records may seem disparate, the teams match up statistically in many ways. UCLA is 21st in the country in rushing offense. Cal is also top 50. The Bruins have the 69th passing offense in the country. The Bears have the 64th. UCLA has the 28th rushing defense in the nation. Cal’s 24th. And both have a porous pass defense. Cal is 70th in the country. UCLA is 118th.
Not convinced of the similarities? UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has thrown for 2,245 yards with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. He is completing his passes at a 61% clip. Cal’s Chase Garbers is completing 64% of his passes for 2,225 yards, and 16 touchdowns against six interceptions.
Both teams lost to Oregon and both teams beat Colorado and Stanford. Cal has definitely had a more up and down season than UCLA. But both coaches have been hot in the headlines. Chip Kelly’s job status has been the topic of debate since the end of last season, although it is now anticipated he will get some small extension to give him another secured year. Cal’s Justin Wilcox has been at the forefront of the rumors to take the job opening at Washington where he was the defensive coordinator in 2012-2013.
There is an item that differentiates UCLA in this match-up. The USC hangover. In 2012, the conference added a regular season on Thanksgiving weekend, or after the USC-UCLA game. There was too much down time in the schedule while other teams were all over the networks, playing critical games leading up to the conference championship weekend. The lag time was thought to be costly for the conference’s national brand.
Now, including this upcoming weekend, it has been a decade of playing that “after USC” game. Due to calendar issues, there was not one in 2013 or 2015. That means seven games, “post USC.” The Bruins are 1-6. They are 0-3 under Kelly.
It could be that getting so emotionally ramped up for the crosstown rivalry game takes a lot out of the Bruins. Kelly likes to say they operate “in a submarine,” and maintain week to week focus on all things football and little else. That may be true of the coaching staff, but it is not always true of the players. They live in an environment with the crosstown rivals that the coaches do not. The players live college student lives. They do things like gather to watch a UCLA basketball against Gonzaga that Kelly did not even know was happening. So just maybe it is not a crazy thought to suggest it takes more for the players to regroup after the USC game than it does the coaching staff.
Kelly was dismissive of such a notion. “I think everybody is trying to find a cause and correlation,” he said. “Maybe we should just get a bye after the USC game,” he added sarcastically. “If that was what it was about then you would already know the outcome of the game and we shouldn’t play the game. You guys, (the media), write narratives. We’re practicing football on a Wednesday.”
He noted about the 1-6 stat, and the 0-3 for him, “You can use any statistic you want.” Kelly famously spent weeks relaying that the reason the pass defense was giving up so many yards was because statistically, UCLA was shutting down all opponents in the rush game. That premise ended when he was presented with the statistic that the majority of teams they played were in the bottom half of the country in rushing yards, because they just weren’t good at running the ball. Statistics can be a tricky thing if not used properly, as Kelly likes to remind us.
A statistic that Wilcox likes is the number zero, as in zero positive Covid tests. Just a few weeks ago they had to move the USC game due to Berkley and school protocols. He said Tuesday the team is completely healthy in terms of the virus.
His Bears started 1-5 this season but have won three of the last four, including a blowout of rival Stanford last week. Two more wins and they are guaranteed bowl eligibility. He said his players know what is at stake. “I guess the coaches live in a bit of a bubble,” he said. “But the players sure don’t, not with the devices they hold in their hands. So, everybody’s well aware that each game we play we need to win.” Wilcox said with the players already knowing what is at stake in the big picture he and the staff do not spend much time talking to the team about it.
Wilcox said the big preparation goes into defending UCLA’s offense and Thompson-Robinson. “He’s a very talented player,” Wilcox said. “He can run it. He can throw it. And he buys time. He can extend the play. And he’s done it for a long time.” As for his defense, he said, “I think our guys are excited for a challenge like that.”
Before we get to the excitement, there of course is the emotional tug that comes with every senior day. We know that Obi Eboh, Brittain Brown, Paul Grattan, Ethan Fernea, Jordan Genmark Heath, and Qwuantrezz Knight have used their six years of eligibility, including the Covid year allocation. Their names will be announced in a pre-game ceremony. Beyond that, it is a bit of a guessing game. Since players have until January 18th of next year to make their final decisions on whether to return or apply to the NFL. Kelly said any senior who wants to walk during the ceremony Saturday night can do that, even if there is a chance they may later decide to return to UCLA.