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UCLA vs. Fresno State: Unlike 2020, no COVID disruptions for Bruins so far this season

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UCLA players celebrate after forcing a turnover against LSU at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4.
UCLA players celebrate after forcing a turnover against LSU at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA is preparing to host Fresno State after a bye week, with an eye on improvement and avoiding a letdown after rising to No. 13 in the top 25 polls.

Settle down, now: UCLA linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath wants Bruins to remain classy as well as gutty

Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath sets up for a play.
Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath (2) sets up for a play during the first half of the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State on Dec. 28, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

As confetti floated in the Rose Bowl air, UCLA players flooding the field in celebration of the team’s biggest victory in years, a few Bruins might have overdone it.

Several players turned toward the Louisiana State fans who had lingered inside the stadium following the Tigers’ 38-27 loss earlier this month, the players holding a finger to their mouths in a shushing gesture. Some waved goodbye tauntingly.

“Time to leave!” they shouted.

Jordan Genmark Heath didn’t like what he was seeing or hearing. The graduate transfer linebacker ushered his teammates toward the locker room, telling them that was the appropriate place to revel in the triumph.

“I think it was some of the younger guys, they’re not really used to being on that big of a stage,” Genmark Heath said this week when asked about the exchange. “I think it’s important to us to represent ourselves and the university and we don’t want to wave goodbye to fans that have come a long way to come see us play, so I just wanted to make sure that we go out there and act in a manner that’s respectable to both sides and more importantly, this is the new way for us, we’re going to keep winning games, so we just have to learn how to adapt to it or react to it.”

Genmark Heath, a transfer from Notre Dame who has made six tackles over the first two games for the Bruins, is one of 18 graduates on the team and 16 players in graduate school. They have filled a void in wisdom as well as talent.

“We’ve got a lot of transfers that kinda came in, just very mature and they seem to be just kind of that missing piece on the team for making plays and kind of taking control as well in situations like that,” redshirt junior receiver Kyle Philips said, alluding to the postgame overexuberance. “With them coming in, the team is just significantly better and the culture here is definitely just changing for the better and that’s a good example.

“We’re not really focused on talking trash anymore, we’re focused on, as coach [Chip Kelly] is always saying ‘Mudita,’ just celebrating each other, just the success of each other and that’s just been phenomenal for our team and just gonna continue to be great.”

No. 13 UCLA (2-0) gets a chance at a party do-over Saturday night when it faces Fresno State (2-1) at the Rose Bowl in its final nonconference game.

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Make a great block, meet a UCLA legend? That works for Kyle Philips

UCLA wide receiver Kyle Philips turns upfield for a touchdown run after making a catch against LSU.
UCLA wide receiver Kyle Philips turns upfield for a touchdown run after making a catch against LSU at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A familiar face approached Kyle Philips on the sideline at the Rose Bowl after the UCLA wide receiver’s crunching block that freed Zach Charbonnet on his 35-yard catch against Louisiana State.

“Good blocking,” the man said.

It was Troy Aikman.

Getting notice from Bruins luminaries would become a trend.

The day after UCLA’s 38-27 victory, former longtime NFL defensive end Datone Jones tweeted out footage of Philips blocking Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., allowing Bruins running back Brittain Brown to score on a one-yard touchdown run.

“I want this guy in a fox hole with me,” tweeted Jones, who played for UCLA before becoming a first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers. “You don’t find WRs with this kind of physicality. this is how you get yourself drafted.”

Philips’ blocking has drawn raves from teammates, coaches and seemingly the entire football world. Bruins coach Chip Kelly said the redshirt junior was one of the team’s players of the games because of the vicious way he deployed his 5-foot-11, 191-pound body on plays that didn’t involve him making catches.

“It’s really your want-to I think is what separates Kyle from anybody else,” Kelly said. “I think the block he threw on Charbonnet’s play, the block he threw on the goal line for Brittain Brown’s touchdown were two huge key points of the game and that’s part of what we do — if you’re a receiver here, you’ve got to block, you can’t be a selective participant, you’ve got to be able to do everything.”

Nearly lost in the buzz surrounding his blocks was Philips’ two catches for 49 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown in which he outmaneuvered a couple of defenders. He’s learned that some of the best highlights don’t involve making the box score.

“In the past, maybe pass play happens, you don’t get the ball, we kinda would just run off the field, wouldn’t do anything,” Philips said, “but now it’s kind of turned into we can make big plays out of anything. So if the ball doesn’t come to you, you have to go turn, look for work, find someone to hit, make a block.”

It can lead to some unexpected introductions to UCLA legends.

“I was like kinda frozen at first,” Philips said of his exchange with Aikman. “I was like, oh, dang. It was a cool experience.”

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UCLA is unbeaten on the field and in its early 2021 efforts to ward off COVID-19

People lean over a railing where Bruins football players are gathered.
The Bruins prepare to take the field against LSU on Sept. 4 at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A game was canceled, necessitating a replacement opponent on practically a moment’s notice. The starting quarterback was among the players sidelined by contact tracing. Others tested positive and experienced a variety of symptoms.

Last year, every game on the UCLA football team’s shortened, conference-only schedule was affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the team has withstood the lingering impact of the health crisis through the early weeks of the 2021 season. No players have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the Bruins are on the brink of completing nonconference play against Fresno State on Saturday without any significant disruptions.

Has UCLA turned the corner on the virus? Coach Chip Kelly shook his head when the question was posed before practice Wednesday, his gesture saying it all.

“I don’t think this country’s turned the corner on it,” Kelly said. “I think we still have to be hyper-vigilant on social distancing. … We can’t in any stretch of the imagination let down our guard right now and say, ‘Hey, we haven’t had a positive test in a while, so let’s say, hey, we’ve got this beat’ because until the CDC comes out and says that this [Delta] variant is gone, we’re still going to be hyper-vigilant in terms of how we’re taking care of ourselves and what we’re doing.”

Among other precautions that remain in place, when the team’s offensive linemen meet, they spread out in the lobby of the Wasserman Football Center, and other position groups distance in other areas of the facility. Players continue to be tested as a safeguard against the spread of a disease that has resulted in breakthrough cases even among people who are fully vaccinated.

A new potential menace is looming: classmates. UCLA is scheduled to resume in-person classes Sept. 23 as students return to campus for the first time in 1½ years.

“We’ve been in a little bit of a bubble here because students haven’t been on campus since Friday, March 13, of 2020,” Kelly said, “so there’s going to be a different dynamic for that, but I think I’ll give our players credit, they really understand that.”

UCLA and Oregon State were the only Pac-12 teams to complete a full schedule last season. If all goes well in the coming months, the Bruins will be part of a bigger success story in 2021.

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It might seem like old times at Rose Bowl for Fresno State’s Elijah Gates, Alex Akingbulu

Utah running back Devonta'e Henry-Cole (7) outruns UCLA defensive back Elijah Gates.
Then-UCLA defensive back Elijah Gates tries to chase down Utah running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole on Nov. 16, 2019.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

UCLA will be reacquainted with two old friends Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. They used to call the place home.

Fresno State’s Elijah Gates and Alex Akingbulu will face their former team for the first time, providing the Bulldogs (2-1) with some extra incentive to upset the No. 13 Bruins (2-0).

Gates has gone from a reserve defensive back at UCLA to a starting strong safety at Fresno State. Akingbulu, who redshirted one season at UCLA and sat out another because of a knee injury, has become the Bulldogs’ starting right tackle.

“Alex is a big, physical offensive lineman that we’re gonna have to have our hands full [with because] he’s tough, strong at the point of attack,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said of the 6-foot-6, 300-pound lineman who transferred after Kelly’s arrival.

Fresno State offensive lineman Alex Akingbulu (75) blocks for running back Ronnie Rivers.
Fresno State offensive lineman Alex Akingbulu (75) blocks for running back Ronnie Rivers, right, against Oregon on Sept. 4.
(Andy Nelson / Associated Press)

Gates played in all seven games last season at UCLA and tied for the team lead with two interceptions before his departure.

“Love Elijah. He’s really done a nice job fitting in there,” Kelly said. “They’ve got him playing safety there, does a great job of fitting their run fits but can cover half the field, so I think he can do both things for them.”

Gates ranks fourth on the Bulldogs’ defense with 12 tackles, including two for losses. He has also broken up two passes.

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Obi Eboh and Alec Anderson strike NIL deals to endorse Sissy Blue shirts

UCLA defensive back Obi Eboh (22) during an NCAA football game against Hawaii.
UCLA defensive back Obi Eboh follows the ball during a win over Hawaii on Aug. 28.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Obi Eboh and Alec Anderson think you would look good in Sissy Blue.

The UCLA football players are expected to begin promoting the brand of T-shirts on social media after signing name, image and likeness deals to capitalize on the phenomenon sparked by Louisiana State coach Ed Orgeron’s impromptu exchange with a Bruins fan.

The first batch of more than 100 shirts — selling at $22 each (with a surcharge for XXL and XXXL) plus shipping — sold out Sunday, according to David Witzling, the UCLA fan and creator of sissyblue.com. The profit margin on each shirt is $10, with all proceeds going directly to the players.

Witzling said a second batch of shirts was expected to be shipped Tuesday so that customers could receive them before No. 13 UCLA (2-0) plays Fresno State (2-1) on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.

The man who drew Ed Orgeron’s UCLA ‘sissy blue shirt’ ire before Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl talks about what led to the exchange with the LSU coach.

The shirts, designed in powder keg blue to honor the color worn by UCLA’s 1954 national championship team, feature the slogan “SISSY BLUE” in block letters across the front in addition to eight football laces as a tribute to the eight-clap. The back has “LOCK THE GATES” imprinted across the top, repeating the phrase Orgeron said as USC’s interim coach in 2013 when he said the Trojans would lock the gates when the Bruins came to the Coliseum.

UCLA beat its crosstown rivals 35-14, and Orgeron was no longer coaching at USC two days later.

Witzling reminded Orgeron of his words when the coach was entering the Rose Bowl before the Tigers’ 38-27 loss to UCLA earlier this month, prompting the coach to shout back, “Bring your ass on, in your sissy blue shirt.”

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UCLA selling $13 tickets to boost attendance against Fresno State on Saturday at Rose Bowl

Gwyneth Schoenbaum, left, and Maddy Perdue play corn hole while tailgating outside of the Rose Bowl
Gwyneth Schoenbaum, left, and Maddy Perdue play corn hole while tailgating outside of the Rose Bowl before a game between Hawaii and UCLA on Aug. 28.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

UCLA is sustaining its efforts to boost attendance at the Rose Bowl, offering $13 tickets for the game against Fresno State on Saturday as part of a flash sale honoring the team’s national ranking after the Bruins (2-0) moved to No. 13 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls.

Fresno State (2-1) sold its allotment of 2,000 tickets for the game and requested an additional 100. Roughly 4,000 Bulldogs fans are expected to attend the team’s first game at the Rose Bowl since it beat the Bruins, 38-14, in September 2018 before an announced crowd of 60,867.

The crowd that shows up Saturday will probably number somewhere between the ghost town of the Hawaii game and the lively throng that showed up to see the Bruins topple Louisiana State.

Similar to the promotions that helped draw 68,123 — the biggest Rose Bowl crowd since 2016 — for the game against LSU, the Bruins are offering complimentary tickets for local students as part of an event to generate interest in attending college; youth football and other youth sports teams; active military members and veterans; and guests of Den Pass holders.

The flash sale ends on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

It will also be Los Bruins Night, with theme T-shirts available as part of a ticket package and sold individually. Getting fans to attend could be a challenge with a 7:45 p.m. kickoff.

“It’s a prime-time game in the Philippines,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly quipped Monday, “so let’s put on a good show for the people in Manila. People on the East Coast aren’t gonna see us play, but at least people in Manila waking up Sunday morning will get a chance to watch the Bruins play, so hopefully there are some Bruins fans there.”

Etc.

UCLA’s Pac-12 Conference opener against Stanford on Sept. 25 at Stanford Stadium will start at 3 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks.

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At 2-0, UCLA steps into unfamiliar world of high expectations

UCLA coach Chip Kelly leaves the field after his Bruins beat LSU
UCLA coach Chip Kelly leaves the field after his Bruins beat LSU 38-27 at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The UCLA Bruins are no longer a sleepy little football operation residing in the shadows of the Rams, Chargers, USC Trojans — and, just maybe — Mater Dei Monarchs.

L.A. loves a winner, and so do the national media. Broadcaster Colin Cowherd latched onto the story after UCLA downed Louisiana State over the weekend, predicting the Bruins would win the Pac-12 Conference while adding, “and I don’t think it’s going to be terribly close.”

The Cheez-It Bowl made UCLA its national team of the week. So did ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. College football coaches and Associated Press pollsters each ranked the team No. 16 in the nation. Some pundits even made UCLA a fashionable pick to make the College Football Playoff.

The first song blaring from loudspeakers at practice Wednesday — Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ " — seemed fitting for a team that had converted a legion of skeptics.

The bandwagon has even rolled into the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room, where former Bruins star linebacker Eric Kendricks handed out UCLA hats to teammates who played for LSU (somehow getting one to grudgingly place it on his head).

It’s a strange new world of expectations the Bruins (2-0) have stepped into as they prepare for their next game, against Fresno State (1-1) on Sept. 18 at the Rose Bowl. Could they stumble given the unfamiliar territory?

“We’re trying to prove a point this year, we’ve got a great team, we know what we have, so we’re ignoring the hype of whatever everything on media is saying,” senior cornerback Cam Johnson said. “That’s all good, all that candy, the eye candy, we’re just buckling down and staying humble and preparing for the next game, trying to win.”

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UCLA moves up to No. 13 in top 25 polls

UCLA got something for nothing Sunday, moving up three spots to No. 13 in both the Associated Press and coaches polls despite not playing over the weekend.

The Bruins (2-0) continue to bask in the afterglow of their Sept. 4 victory over Louisiana State (1-1), which notched its first victory of the season Saturday with a 34-7 triumph over McNeese State, a Football Championship Subdivision school.

UCLA’s next opponent, Fresno State (2-1), received votes in both polls after walloping Cal Poly, 63-10, one week after nearly knocking off Oregon. The Bruins will face the Bulldogs on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.

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