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UCLA might not have the numbers but the team's resilience showed against USC

UCLA might not have the numbers but the team's resilience showed against USC
UCLA receiver Theo Howard catches a touchdown pass in front of USC defensive back Iman Marshall during the first quarter Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

So what, now what?

Just stay in the moment.

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Keep chopping.

Pick any of UCLA’s mantras under coach Chip Kelly and it would apply to the resolve the team showed during its 34-27 victory over USC on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

The Bruins lost leads of 14-3 and 21-17. They suffered special teams breakdowns, having a punt blocked for a touchdown and giving up a first down on a fake punt that led to another Trojans touchdown. Their secondary was burned for long stretches, giving up 337 passing yards.

Ultimately, none of it mattered. UCLA regrouped each time to beat USC for the first time since 2014.

“I just think it points out to the group we got right now just how resilient they are,” Kelly said afterward. “We got a lot of things, we don’t got a lot of numbers [in terms of available players], but they just kept playing.”

A big chunk of the Bruins’ perseverance could be credited to Wilton Speight. The graduate transfer quarterback had already started 16 games at Michigan, including the Wolverines’ rivalry game against Ohio State, before his arrival at UCLA, giving him a steadying presence with mostly younger teammates.

“Wilton’s a cool customer. He doesn’t get fazed,” Kelly said of the quarterback who completed 13 of 22 passes for 166 yards with one touchdown and one interception while also running for a touchdown. “There’s a calmness about him and I think that helps and I think that pervades through our offense. When he’s calm, I think everybody else is calm.”

UCLA’s special teams had every reason to lose its cool. Even with what Kelly called his “safe punt team” on the field late in the first quarter, the Bruins allowed a fake punt to go for a first down. The mistakes continued early in the second quarter when blocking breakdowns let a throng of Trojans to converge on Stefan Flintoft and block his punt.

The problems stopped there. Flintoft got off the rest of his punts without any issues and kicker J.J. Molson made two field goals that provided valuable insurance.

“You’ve got to learn in this game it’s going to be ebb and flow and you’ve got to go back and I think part of it is your response after a bad play,” Kelly said. “They blocked the punt, all right, we’ll get it fixed in protection while we’re on the sideline, but let’s go. I don’t think this team dwells in the past. I think they learn from their experiences and just keep fighting forward.”

That mind set carried over to the secondary. Safety Adarius Pickett said he continually encouraged the other defensive backs to trust their talent even after getting beat. It happened repeatedly, with USC receivers making five catches that went for at least 24 yards.

“Sometimes I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that,” Pickett said of staying strong amid adversity. “You can’t break up every pass and every ball, and sometimes you’re going to give up some catches. But you just gotta keep playing.”

UCLA got some payback with interceptions by cornerbacks Nate Meadors and Darnay Holmes on passes that USC quarterback JT Daniels floated into coverage.

The Trojans poked the Bruins one last time by dancing onto the field before the start of the fourth quarter while holding a 27-21 lead. UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley said the bouncing mob reminded him to keep chopping, one of his favorite catchphrases.

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Kelley slashed the Trojans with a 55-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, the start of 13 unanswered points that showed the Bruins were willing to, well, fight on.

“We embraced the fourth quarter,” said Kelley, whose 289 rushing yards were the most by any player in the history of the rivalry. “We know we have to be at our best when our best is required.”

Etc.

UCLA announced its 2019 season ticket packages Sunday, including a $169 young alumni option for those who recently obtained undergraduate or graduate degrees and a $249 reserved value option. Visiting fans have been relocated to end zone sections above the locker rooms. … UCLA was penalized a season-low two times for 15 yards against USC, with both infractions coming in the first quarter. The Bruins were called for a false start and defensive holding. … UCLA has exceeded 400 yards in total offense in five of its last seven games.

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