Who could have imagined it just three weeks ago, when UCLA’s defense was hemorrhaging touchdowns, its coach was losing supporters and its record was worse than Facebook’s at protecting user data?
The Bruins are headed for the season’s most pivotal game in the Pac-12 South Division.
It will be UCLA versus No. 9 Utah on Nov. 16 in Salt Lake City for all the marbles, or at least all the ones Bruins fans have left after a bonkers turnaround from their 1-5 start.
If the Bruins (4-5, 4-2) beat the Utes (8-1, 5-1) at Rice-Eccles Stadium for a fourth consecutive victory, it could conceivably forge a three-way tie atop the division standings between UCLA, Utah and USC, provided the Trojans (5-4, 4-2) beat Arizona State next week on the road. That would also lead to a winner-take-all showdown between the Bruins and Trojans on Nov. 23 at the Coliseum, with both teams holding the tiebreaker over the Utes in that scenario.
For the Bruins, their game against Utah is the program’s biggest since facing USC in November 2015 with the Pac-12 South title at stake. Incidentally, UCLA had won at nationally ranked Utah the previous week.
The Bruins and Utes will head into their latest matchup after an open date, giving them additional time to not only prepare for one another but also savor their standing.
“For sure going to get a jump on Utah this week, make sure we go out and compete,” UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes said Saturday night after the Bruins polished off Colorado, 31-14, at the Rose Bowl. “It’s gonna be a hectic scene; we’re ready for it.”
Utah, fighting for a spot in the College Football Playoff, was widely expected to be playing in meaningful games this time of year.
UCLA? Less than a month ago, it looked like the Bruins were headed for the Rose Bowl … to play their final home against California, followed by another early off-season.
When UCLA beat undermanned Stanford last month, it seemed to signify little besides ending that 11-game losing streak in the series.
When UCLA beat nationally ranked Arizona State nine days later, it remained reasonable to question the meaning of it all given that the Bruins had faced another freshman quarterback.
When UCLA beat Colorado on Saturday, soundly thrumming the Buffaloes for a third consecutive victory, the trends became impossible to ignore.
The Bruins possess an offense so high-powered it’s as if it came straight from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, having waived the delivery fee after failing to bring it to the Rose Bowl until after the end of nonconference play.
UCLA has scored 30 or more points in four consecutive games and five of its last six. The Bruins have rushed for at least 200 yards in five consecutive games for the first time since 1978.
Serviceable defense didn’t arrive until the Stanford game, the Bruins finally figuring something might have to change after giving up 37.7 points per game to that point of the season.
Linebacker Krys Barnes, whose first-quarter interception against Colorado on Saturday led to a touchdown on the next play, said the team decided to play faster and more physical during its last open week before facing the Cardinal.
Ever since, UCLA has allowed just 20.7 points per game, with the 14 it gave up Saturday the lowest of the Chip Kelly era. Surely, Kelly and his assistants also contributed by altering schemes that once had defensive backs sagging 10 yards off the line of scrimmage?
“That’s the great part,” Kelly said. “We call the same things we called early in the year. I think we’re executing and our players are really doing it, but it’s not like we changed the name or the base or the calls. You look at the percentage of blitzes that we had early in the year and the percentage of blitzes that we had now and they’re probably similar from a numbers standpoint, but I just think we’re just executing.”
They’re executing and they’re winning, and the Bruins are one signature victory away from becoming the .500 team that nobody wants to play.
Running back Joshua Kelley has rushed for 100 yards or more in two consecutive games and four of the eight games in which he’s played this season. His 126 rushing yards against Colorado gave him 2,104 for his career, moving him into No. 15 on the school’s all-time list. … Demetric Felton Jr.’s three catches against Colorado gave him 39 for the season, a new UCLA record for a running back.