It’s a dreaded post-practice ritual that, when things go well, doesn’t take place.
A UCLA running back will slowly roll his body across the scorching artificial turf, clutching a ball in his arm, while the other players who share the position walk alongside. Other teammates watch from afar, happy they don’t also have to become a hot, sticky mess.
“I don’t know how it feels,” center Boss Tagaloa said Wednesday. “I don’t want to know how it feels, either.”
The routine is punishment levied by running backs coach DeShaun Foster for fumbling in practice. If he had to go off the running backs’ fumbles in games, however, Foster would have almost nobody to punish.
Kazmeir Allen’s lost fumble against Arizona State last month accounted for the only one by a Bruins running back this season. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has lost five fumbles and tight end Michael Martinez has lost one.
As UCLA (4-5 overall, 4-2 Pac-12 Conference) prepared to face No. 7 Utah (8-1, 5-1) on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Bruins coach Chip Kelly said improvement in the turnover department was essential.
“The fumbles are a little bit alarming,” Kelly said. “I can’t remember the last game we were clean and didn’t have any, so we’ve got to really work on the turnover aspect of things.”
The Bruins actually didn’t have any fumbles in their last game, against Colorado, but their three against Arizona State the previous week were a season high. Thompson-Robinson has also had eight passes intercepted, single-handedly accounting for 13 of his team’s 15 turnovers.
Tracking UCLA’s success has been as simple as following the turnovers. The Bruins are minus-seven in turnovers during losses and plus-three during wins, the latter statistic largely a result of forcing nine of their 11 takeaways in the wins.
“I would say that’s the most glaring statistic in football at any level whether it’s Pop Warner, high school, college or pros,” Kelly said. “You win the turnover battle consistently, you’ll probably end up on the right side of the ledger most times.
“And then part of it after that is, what’s your response after the turnover? Because I’ve been on teams where the defense gives you four turnovers and you go three and out right after they give it to you and you punt, well, you didn’t do anything with what they gave you. The same thing is if your defense can kind of bow its back and take some pride when the offense does turn the ball over that, hey, we’re not going to let this affect us; that’s part of it too.”
Utah has lost eight fumbles while having only one pass intercepted, a big reason the Utes are plus-six in turnovers, ranking No. 2 in the Pac-12 and tied for No. 17 nationally.
Kelly puts his players through a ball security gauntlet every day in which they must avoid having it poked out by teammates and coaches. But the coach noted that fumbles can result from other breakdowns such as unblocked defenders blindsiding the quarterback.
“They’re not just on one guy,” Kelly said. “You look at what happened on that play and then coach it up.”
Even if it means having to roll over.
UCLA has held the ball for longer than its opponent in every Pac-12 game as part of its offensive resurgence.
The discrepancy was especially pronounced the last two weeks, when the Bruins had the ball for 38:30 against Arizona State and 34:27 against Colorado. A related development was that UCLA sustained long, clock-draining drives in both of those games while churning out large chunks of yardage on the ground.
“If you go three and out, you don’t have the ball very long,” Kelly said. “If you go long, extended drives then you have the ball longer, so we’re executing at a better rate on the offensive side of the ball.”
UCLA ranks No. 56 nationally in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 30 minutes — half of every game.
Kelly said linebacker Bo Calvert, who has not played this season because of an unspecified NCAA suspension, would not be available against the Utes. … Kelly said he was unsure if linebacker Tyree Thompson, recovering from foot surgery that has sidelined him since August, would be able to play before the end of the season. “It’s just a matter of, when is the bone fully healed?” Kelly said.