If every game is the Super Bowl, as Chip Kelly likes to say, then what happens when you actually get to the Super Bowl?
UCLA is on the verge of its first big game under Kelly, the coach who predictably called it just another big game because it’s the next one on his team’s schedule.
“Every game we play is the biggest game we play, and that’s the way we’ve always approached it,” Kelly said Monday as his team resumed its preparations for a Saturday showdown with No. 8 Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
The Bruins (4-5 , 4-2 Pac-12) won’t win any championships if they defeat the Utes (8-1, 5-1) as three-touchdown underdogs, but they could do something more significant than get back to .500.
A victory would catapult UCLA into a tie with Utah in the Pac-12 Conference standings while securing the tiebreaker between the teams. USC (6-4, 5-2) could forge a half-game lead over both teams should it defeat California on Saturday in Berkeley, but the Bruins would get a chance to overtake the Trojans when the teams meet Nov. 23 in the Coliseum.
Should UCLA win that game and beat California in its regular-season finale, it would secure an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 6 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, an unlikely destination for a team that started 1-5.
A sign of the Bruins’ resurgence came last week when some swagger slipped into the discourse among players seemingly programmed to say little more about an upcoming game other than they want to go 1-0 each week.
“Utah’s known for being tough,” said receiver Ethan Fernea, the former walk-on who became a hero this month against Colorado when he made his first career touchdown catch, “but I think we’re ready to go out and show that we’re the tougher team.”
UCLA could strut its way to Utah given a three-game winning streak that is the longest of the Kelly era, but the coach made it clear that he wanted his team to treat this week no differently than, say, its preparations for San Diego State in September. Kelly pointed to the wild success he had at Oregon as validation of his live-in-the moment approach.
“We went 46-7 with it, 34-3 in the league,” said Kelly, apparently having committed those records to memory. “Focus on whatever it is, whatever game that week you’re playing is the most important game you play.”
On a micro level, that means going snap to snap within games and not looking at the scoreboard. Kelly made a rolling motion with his hand to indicate what happens whenever players perform based on the way a game is trending.
The Bruins seemed to grasp the message that consistency in both preparation and play leads to success. Redshirt senior linebacker Josh Woods said that can involve teaching younger teammates sayings that resonate for the rest of their careers. Among those that Kelly has championed are “Let’s have a really good Monday” and “You always sink to your level of training.”
“You just never be too high or too low, always just steady, even-headed,” Woods said. “You can’t be too affected by the wins or the losses, so just keep a level head and attack it play by play, game by game, not looking ahead or thinking about stuff like that.”
Woods was a freshman who was recovering from an injury and didn’t travel to Salt Lake City the last time the Bruins beat the Utes, in November 2015. That was another high-stakes showdown, with UCLA needing a win to set up an even bigger game against USC the next week in which the Bruins stumbled, costing them an appearance in the Pac-12 title game.
This UCLA-Utah matchup will pit the conference’s best defense against its hottest offense. Since Pac-12 play started, the Bruins lead the conference in points per game (37), rushing yards per game (217.2) and first downs per game (25.2). The Utes lead the Pac-12 in points allowed per game (13.5), rushing yards allowed per game (51.5) and first downs allowed per game (14.2) in conference play.
“They’ve always had great defenses at Utah,” Kelly said, “and this is right up there with some of the best defenses that I’ve seen that Utah’s produced.”
This is also going to be up there with some of the biggest games Kelly has been involved in, just by way of landing on his team’s schedule.
“This is just another game,” Woods said. “It’s a big game because it’s our next game.”