UCLA has known for a while that its season would probably end in the Rose Bowl. Only now the Bruins are contemplating what that might feel like in January, not November.
Utah recently figured its schedule would include only one trip to the Rose Bowl this season. The Utes are just beginning to ponder a repeat visit.
Funny how much rosier both teams’ outlooks have grown in the last few weeks.
The Bruins opened the season with five consecutive losses and even some hire remorse over new coach Chip Kelly among frustrated fans.
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham was also feeling the heat. Utah dropped its first two Pac-12 Conference games, sparking more angst about remaining the only team to never have won a Pac-12 South title.
Yeah, about that …
Utah is now the only team in the division that controls its fate. If the No. 23 Utes (5-2 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) win the rest of their conference games, starting with a pop-up showdown against UCLA (2-5, 2-2) on Friday night at the Rose Bowl, they will be assured of playing for the conference title Nov. 30 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
The Bruins’ path to the Pac-12 championship game is a bit more potholed. UCLA needs to win out — no easy task considering that Oregon, USC and Stanford remain on the schedule — while hoping Colorado loses at least one more game after buffaloing the Bruins last month to win the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Even being able to consider such a possibility qualifies as a shocker after going 0-for-September.
“Uh, it’s interesting,” UCLA safety Quentin Lake said. “ … Everyone’s like, ‘Let’s keep this thing going.’”
Lake has helped trigger his team’s turnaround by logging one of the eight turnovers UCLA has forced during its two-game winning streak. The Bruins have also run the ball effectively, tailback Joshua Kelley’s four consecutive 100-yard rushing games taking pressure off quarterbacks Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Wilton Speight.
There was uncertainty late in the week as to which quarterback would start against Utah. Thompson-Robinson appeared to be progressing in his recovery from an unspecified upper-body injury suffered against Arizona last weekend, but Speight worked with the first team during the last part of practice open to reporters this week.
The Utes come into the Rose Bowl with a three-game winning streak and fresh off a sweep of the three Pac-12 player-of-the-week awards. Quarterback Tyler Huntley, linebacker Chase Hansen and kicker Matt Gay became the first threesome from the same team to accomplish that feat since Oregon State in 2006.
USC could attest to their worthiness after they helped Utah stomp the Trojans 41-28 to move the teams into a tie atop the Pac-12 South. It was the third consecutive game in which the Utes have topped 40 points.
“There are not a lot of flaws in Utah,” Kelly said. “They’ve got an outstanding defense, offense, special teams.”
The Utes need only one more victory to become bowl eligible for the 13th time under Whittingham, whose 11-1 bowl record gives him the best bowl winning percentage (92%) in NCAA history.
One bowl Whittingham has never experienced is the Rose Bowl, a drought that looked like it was bound to continue after his team lost to Washington State this month to fall to 0-2 in the Pac-12.
Kelly could relate to the empty feeling. Only two weeks ago, his Bruins were among the last handful of winless teams in the nation. They didn’t change much except the results.
“I really like how the team’s responded,” UCLA tight end Caleb Wilson said. “I’ve never seen any give-up, I’ve seen guys focus on the small things in practice and it’s starting to show by us getting some wins.”