It was 100 years ago this week that UCLA played its first football game, a 74-0 loss to Manual Arts High before a crowd of 150.
A century later, it seems reasonable to wonder who would win, and how many people would show up, if the teams played again.
The Bruins are unquestionably in a dark place, seemingly light years removed from the pinnacle of their 1954 national championship season or even one of their 12 appearances in the Rose Bowl game.
When the opening kickoff sails into the air Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl, UCLA will be on nearly equal footing with Oregon State, the blight of the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins (1-4 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) are just six-point favorites over the Beavers (1-3, 0-1) in a game that could be played before a record-low crowd.
The number to “beat” is 32,513. That was the attendance on Nov. 7, 1992, when UCLA edged Oregon State before what still stands as the smallest gathering for a Bruins game in their 37 years at the Rose Bowl. The three smallest UCLA crowds at the stadium have all involved the Beavers, who don’t travel well or have a large alumni base in Southern California.
The fourth-smallest crowd came last month, when an announced 36,951 showed up to see the Bruins lose to San Diego State.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly’s hiring almost two years ago was expected to revive interest in a sagging program but has only further cratered fan support amid a surprisingly plodding offense and a defense that ranks among the worst in the nation. The Bruins have gone 4-13 since Kelly’s arrival and are positioned for a possible new low Saturday.
If Oregon State beats UCLA, Beavers coach Jonathan Smith, who arrived at his post almost two years ago with little to no fanfare, will have a better record with the Beavers than Kelly with the Bruins.
UCLA players said there was no heightened urgency, repeating the mantra that they wanted to go 1-0 this week like always.
“I think every week, we go in with the mindset to win the game, you know?” quarterback Austin Burton said. “Not any game bigger than the other one.”
Burton will likely start in place of injured teammate Dorian Thompson-Robinson, putting the onus on a backup in the battle of second-rate teams. Thompson-Robinson was knocked out of the Bruins’ game against Arizona last week because of a leg injury and worked off to the side of the field with a trainer Wednesday during the last practice open to reporters, making him unlikely to play against the Beavers, barring an unusually speedy recovery.
Kelly praised Burton for his efforts against the Wildcats and intimated that he would not have to significantly alter his game plan considering that Burton and Thompson-Robinson were both mobile quarterbacks with strong arms.
“They both throw a nice, catch-able football, so there’s similar traits between those two guys,” Kelly said. “It’s not [like] one guy’s got the ability to run and the other guy doesn’t.”
Burton did not seem over-matched in his first collegiate action, the redshirt sophomore leading the Bruins on an extended drive that put them within range of a field goal that could have sent the game into overtime. But the field goal sailed wide right along with UCLA’s bid to take over sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South.
Now, the Bruins have to win five of their final seven games just to qualify for the bowl that seemed like a baseline for fan expectations in Kelly’s second season.
Burton’s teammates expressed confidence that he could help engineer at least one satisfactory ending, against the Beavers.
“It is a big week for him, so let’s see what he can do,” said linebacker Shea Pitts, Burton’s roommate. “I’m excited to see him go.”
Pitts won’t be the only one watching Saturday at the Rose Bowl, but it could be close.