They will gather for the Disappointment Bowl on Saturday night inside the Rose Bowl, two teams eager to show they are on an upward trajectory under new coaches even if the early results have indicated otherwise.
A win under UCLA’s Chip Kelly has been a rarity on par with the epic Southern California rainstorm that preceded it. The coach wore the look of a man paroled when he met with reporters this week, his relief resulting from his first Bruins victory, which eliminated the possibility of an O-fer season.
“I’m not going to deny that,” Kelly said when asked if it was nice to head into a week with a win. “It’s a good thing to build upon.”
Arizona feels more like a complete teardown after star quarterback Khalil Tate, already hobbled and only semi-effective, was shut down for the game between the Wildcats (3-4 overall, 2-2 Pac-12) and the Bruins (1-5, 1-2) because his nagging ankle injury had badly deteriorated.
Tate’s absence considerably dims the prospects of a team that hasn’t beaten anyone of consequence, no offense to Southern Utah, Oregon State or California.
A headline in the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson this week read “Missed tackles, QB struggles continue to plague Wildcats.” Those same words also appeared in a slew of Southern California newspapers this season regarding the Bruins.
Even Arizona’s game notes, usually a bastion of positivity, couldn’t avoid burying the lead in its assessment of the team’s play. “Momentum and consistency have been hard to come by for Arizona, which has shown flashes of explosiveness of offense and periods of attacking defense,” one blurb read. “But too often the offense has sputtered and the defense has faltered on key third-down situations.”
There were doomsday scenarios that didn’t have UCLA and Arizona sitting at a combined 4-9 in late October. So what’s gone wrong under coaches whose contracts are worth a combined $38 million? What hasn’t?
Quarterbacks have gone down, defenses have sagged and progress has been as jagged as an Arizona desert canyon. Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin smiled wryly when a reporter asked about assessing young players on the roster while trying to win games. The same question had been posed to Kelly this season.
“Yeah,” Sumlin said with a laugh. “That’s what we’re doing. That’s exactly right. That’s been the discussion.”
The Bruins have gone 0-3 at home on the way to their worst start since 1943 while featuring one of the worst offenses in the nation, only one season after going unbeaten at home behind the play of a generational quarterback.
This … is progress?
No one will know for a while whether UCLA’s start under Kelly has masked imperceptible growth that will blossom into a bumper crop of wins. Several players recently pronounced the Bruins on the verge of greatness, which didn’t seem so preposterous after they forced five turnovers and ran for more than 200 yards during a 37-7 rout of Cal.
UCLA’s progress over its last six quarters, which also included a strong second half against Washington, doesn’t require a crack investigative team to uncover.
“Points scored and points against,” Kelly cracked when asked about his team’s biggest strides.
Sunny-siders also can note that both UCLA and Arizona reside only one game back in the loss column in a feeble Pac-12 South with more than half their conference games to play. Arizona is tied with Utah for third, aligning with the Wildcats’ predicted finish in the preseason conference media poll. The Bruins sit alone in fifth place after being tabbed to finish fourth.
Stepping onto the Rose Bowl field will be a reminder of one of Sumlin’s biggest disappointments. His final Texas A&M team held a 44-10 lead over UCLA late in the third quarter last season and couldn’t hold it. The Bruins put together the biggest comeback in school history in a 45-44 triumph.
Kelly spent three days with Sumlin and the Aggies last season as an ESPN analyst, continuing his lifelong learning of the way other teams like to operate. It wasn’t long before Sumlin would be fired, leading to his arrival at Arizona.
“If there’s anything, there’s some familiarity there,” Sumlin said of playing a team coached by Kelly, “but that also means there’s familiarity with us. Familiarity goes both ways in those types of situations.”