UCLA running back Joshua Kelley sprinted across the blue-painted grass toward his teammates, waving his arms in celebration like a gleeful child.
It was only fitting that Kelley’s 55-yard touchdown run against USC brought innocent bliss as he chest-bumped his fellow Bruins in the air. The sight of the Rose Bowl filling up with fans before the rivalry game conjured memories from his youth; he has watched USC and UCLA battle since he was 8 years old.
Saturday was his turn.
“I’m gonna make sure I embrace every single moment,” Kelley said. “You know, make the best out of it.”
His best, a career-high 289 yards in 40 carries, set a record for the most rushing yards by a player in a USC-UCLA game — on either team. It was the third-highest single-game rushing total in UCLA history, behind Maurice Jones-Drew (322 yards in 2004) and DeShaun Foster (301 in 2001).
The highlight was Kelley’s 55-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, giving UCLA a lead en route to a 34-27 victory.
With 1,188 yards on the season, Kelley became UCLA’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Paul Perkins had 1,343 yards in 2015. His 40 carries were more than double the 18.5 he averaged before and tied the third-highest total in UCLA history.
“Forty?” Kelley said, laughing. “Sheesh. I’ll have to use the ice bath tonight, for sure.”
Said coach Chip Kelly: “I wish he carried it 100.”
Kelley earned 92 yards in the first quarter alone, tearing 61 yards down the sideline in his longest run of the game before being dragged down by the shoulder pads, only a few yards shy of the end zone.
Kelley powered through the USC defense for a one-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter before his 55-yard burst. The score marked his seventh straight game with a rushing touchdown — the longest UCLA streak since Skip Hicks’ 14 games from 1996 to 1997.
After the first three games of the season, Kelley had rushed for only 27 yards. The transfer from UC Davis watched the Bruins fall to Fresno State from the bench.
The disappointment hardened his resolve. Kelley grinded in practice to earn the starting spot against Colorado, when he gained 124 yards, and has impressed his teammates with his work ethic since. He made diving catches at practice less than two days after a 30-carry game and brought an infectious smile that inspired his team.
“When he comes in here, he’ll uplift this room,” Kelly said, later adding: “If you’re going to buy stock in a human being, buy stock in Josh Kelley.”
Kelley still wore his jersey, pads and grass-stained pants when he sat down at the podium after the game and leaned into the microphone. He laughed at how sore he’d be after 40 carries, smiled at the questions and deflected praise to his offensive line.
And he appreciated how far he had come. Reflecting where he was at the season’s start brought as much awe as viewing Saturday’s game from his childhood lens. He pictured himself dejected months before, and imagined what he would say.
“Football, it’s an up-and-down sport,” Kelley said. “Like our coach says, it’s about life. Some days it’s gonna be great, and then some days it won’t be. I would just tell myself that you have to keep fighting.”
Despite a discouraging record, UCLA has done just that. The Bruins started 0-5 for the first time since 1943 and earned only two wins before Saturday, but still came back in the fourth quarter to break a three-game losing streak against USC, their fifth victory against their rival since 1999, bolstered by the determination of their record-setting running back.