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What do Bruins have left to play for? Plenty, UCLA says

What do Bruins have left to play for? Plenty, UCLA says
UCLA coach Chip Kelly and the Bruins will be looking for their fourth victory of the season against Stanford on Saturday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA could be on the verge of a catchy new cheer: the 4-8 clap.

A victory over Stanford on Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl wouldn’t do much to salvage the Bruins’ final record, but it would provide further evidence of the possibility of eventual salvation under coach Chip Kelly as his first season comes to a close.

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The Bruins, 3-8 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12, already dispatched their archrival, USC. Now they get a chance to beat the team that’s been a giant sequoia blocking their path to supremacy in the Pac-12 over the last decade.

Stanford (6-4, 4-3) has won 10 consecutive games in the series, including a soul-crushing triumph in the final minute at the Rose Bowl in 2016 after it appeared that Jim Mora’s efforts to remake the Bruins in the image of the Cardinal just might work out.

The Cardinal also were the only Pac-12 team to go .500 against Kelly’s Ducks while he was at Oregon, winning two of four games from 2009 to 2012, but the coach dismissed the notion of old results factoring into the way the Bruins might approach their season finale.

“We’re a forward-thinking operation, so what happened in the past doesn’t mean anything to us,” Kelly said. “We’re looking through the windshield, not through the rear-view mirror, so I don’t care if they won 47 in a row. That really doesn’t affect this team.”

UCLA’s record is largely a function of a young team playing a tough schedule while being ravaged by injuries that at one point left the Bruins with only 57 available scholarship players, nearly all of them underclassmen. Kelly noted a few weeks ago that his kickoff coverage team featured seven true freshmen and four walk-ons — and one of the walk-ons also a freshman.

Kelly then made sure to add that he didn’t rue the youth movement, considering it an opportunity for growth.

“Let’s worry about our controllables and then try to be obsessed with improvement,” Kelly said when asked about his approach amid all the losing. “That’s what we all are, we’re obsessed with improvement and can we be better than what we were yesterday.”

Kelly’s players have insisted for weeks that they feel the improvement, even if the results mostly haven’t showed it. But the Bruins’ 34-27 victory over USC provided proof of the growth.

“It’s good to see your hard work pay off,” linebacker Krys Barnes said.

Progress has been most evident in Kelly’s specialty, offense, as the Bruins have averaged 419.3 yards the last seven games after averaging 312 over the first four. The defense had its finest hour against USC, holding the Trojans scoreless in the fourth quarter to enable a comeback, and the spotty special teams went the entire second half without a significant blunder.

Next year, UCLA conceivably could return every player on offense besides graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight, giving the Bruins the kind of continuity they sorely lacked this season.

But first they have a chance to win what Kelly has dubbed the California championship after having beaten California and USC, though Fresno State beat the Bruins in September.

If nothing else, a victory over Stanford could portend triumphant seasons ahead.

“It would be huge, especially to finish off the season,” Barnes said. “Finish it off with a win going into the offseason, then get ready to work.”

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