The Rose Bowl remains in reach for UCLA under a scenario as likely as snow in the Arizona desert this time of year.
The Bruins would have to win their final three games and watch the rest of the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division experience something approaching Armageddon. Then they would have to beat the North Division champion as heavy underdogs in the Pac-12 title game.
More realistically, the Bruins would like to finish their first season under coach Chip Kelly on an upward trajectory and snag a few wins along the way.
“I really just want to come out with three W’s,” said senior receiver Christian Pabico, whose college career is nearing its end. “So that’s really the main thing for me.”
The first opportunity for UCLA (2-7 overall, 2-4 in the Pac-12) comes Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium against Arizona State (5-4, 3-3), one of four teams the Bruins are trying to overtake in a jumbled Pac-12 South where every team has at least three conference losses.
Beating the Sun Devils would likely involve cleaning up the debris of a recent downturn. UCLA has been bedeviled by missed tackles, dropped passes, penalties and special teams breakdowns all season but particularly during its current two-game losing streak.
“A lot of it is getting out of our own way,” Pabico said. “The last two games I think a lot of it came down to us just shooting ourselves in the foot. You know, simple things like false starts, little holding penalties or just not getting lined up, not being in the right personnel or whatever the case may be. It’s a lot of stuff that we can fix.”
Kelly was hired to eliminate these sorts of mistakes as part of a complete rebuilding process. While it’s taking longer than fans would have liked for the Bruins to make perceptible progress, Kelly recently appeared to acknowledge for the first time the scope of the undertaking.
“It’s all brand new,” said Kelly last week after his team dropped six passes, missed 12 tackles and committed an assortment of special-teams blunders during a 42-21 loss to Oregon. “They’re learning us, we’re learning them, so that’s part of the process that we go through. That’s the challenge, and to be honest with you, that’s the fun part. No one wants it easy and that was one of the reasons [this job] was attractive, so let’s go see what we can get done.”
It would be easy to say that Herm Edwards, Arizona State’s first-year coach, is further along than Kelly in his takeover efforts based on the Sun Devils’ record, but some context is needed. Kelly inherited a younger team, a tougher schedule and fewer dynamic skill players than his counterpart, whose success has largely been a function of veteran quarterback Manny Wilkins, receiver N’Keal Harry and tailback Eno Benjamin.
Kelly has had to break in two new quarterbacks while searching for consistent playmakers beyond tailback Joshua Kelley. A new offense and defense aren’t the only things the Bruins continue to learn; an increased level of accountability has led to the announced suspensions of seven players.
“Other people might question him,” Edwards told reporters this week when asked about Kelly, “but I think when he gets his players and develops his system at UCLA, they are going to be really good.”
Pabico said the current roster is already adapting to the new culture, even if the results might not show it.
“We just kind of trust the system a lot more,” Pabico said. “We’re a lot more comfortable with it, the offense and just the way that everything flows.”
Several Bruins players said there remained plenty to play for amid a schedule that will end with meaningful games, Rose Bowl or not. UCLA still has to play USC and longtime nemesis Stanford, which has won the last 10 games in the series.
But first comes a chance to get back to winning against Arizona State.