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Fresno State game is indeed a big one for Chip Kelly and UCLA

Fresno State game is indeed a big one for Chip Kelly and UCLA
Fresno State's Jordan Mims, foreground, is pushed out of bounds by Minnesota's Jacob Huff during the fourth quarter on Sept. 8, 2018 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Hannah Foslien / Getty Images)

UCLA coach Chip Kelly likes to say that every game is the Super Bowl. It’s a mantra intended to steady his team’s focus and remind players that no game is more important than any other.

Kelly used the phrase while he was at Oregon to suppress rivalry hype or keep a heavily favored team engaged in its preparation for what was expected to be a blowout victory.

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Its usage could take on a different meaning Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, where Kelly will coach a winless team against a small-conference opponent in what could be a half-empty stadium.

UCLA (0-2) versus Fresno State (1-1) may not have a big-game feel, but its importance is palpable for the Bruins as they try to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1971 while notching victory No. 1 of the Kelly era.

“These guys have worked very, very hard and we need to get on the right side of the win-loss column,” Kelly said this week. “So it’s a big game from that standpoint.”

Fresno State is no stranger to big-game hunting, the Bulldogs having adopted the slogan “Anybody, Anytime, Anywhere” while playing 45 Power Five conference teams since 2000. They enjoyed a remarkable run under former coach Pat Hill early in the 2001 season, knocking off Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin in successive weeks.

More recently, playing the big boys has led to some bullying of the Bulldogs. Fresno State, a member of the Mountain West Conference, has lost its last 10 games against major-conference teams since beating Colorado in 2012.

UCLA has struggled against brand-name and garden-variety opponents alike this season.

The Bruins lost their home opener against Cincinnati before causing a cannon-firing frenzy last week in Oklahoma, where spirit squad members fire modified shotguns after Sooners touchdowns.

The team’s offense has sputtered while playing at a much more leisurely pace than Kelly’s famed Oregon blur.

UCLA is also struggling with tackling, penalties and special teams, all familiar concerns to those who followed the team during coach Jim Mora’s final seasons. Another similarity is the pledge to fix those deficiencies.

“We’re kind of heading in the right direction,” right guard Justin Murphy said. “We saw more success as far as sustaining a drive against Oklahoma than we did against Cincinnati, so that kind of shows us that we can do it.”

Kelly pinpointed some tangible progress, noting that his team had largely eliminated the offside and false-start penalties that plagued it in its opener. The Bruins also had no turnovers against Oklahoma after having a pass intercepted by Cincinnati.

“They’re learning, not making the same mistakes over and over again,” Kelly said. “So that’s a positive to build upon.”

It remained unclear whether freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson would make a second consecutive start. Wilton Speight increased his participation in practice this week after sitting out the game against the Sooners with a back injury, but Kelly provided no clarity on whether the graduate transfer quarterback would play Saturday.

“We’ll just see how it goes with the rest of the week,” Kelly said Wednesday, the last time he met with reporters before the game.

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The uncertainty might be one reason Las Vegas oddsmakers appear undecided on the matchup. The betting line opened with UCLA as a one-point underdog before shifting midweek to make it a one-point favorite. As of Friday afternoon, the Bruins were three-point underdogs.

Kelly is off to his worst start in five seasons as a college head coach, triggering a message board meltdown among UCLA fans who expected instantaneous success. Another loss would match the highest total that Kelly’s teams logged in any of his four seasons at Oregon.

The coach seemed to grasp the sobering reality of the situation, appearing even more matter-of-fact than usual this week.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Kelly said, “and still a lot of experiences for those guys to gain as we go and continue to play.”

The bulk of the Bruins’ schedule remains. Two Super Bowls down, 10 to go.

Times staff writer Blake Richardson contributed to this report.

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