Chip Kelly gently swayed as he stood on the practice field and pointed toward Pauley Pavilion with his left hand, invoking the greatest sports figure in UCLA history when asked about his team’s perseverance through another horrid start.
“There was a coach here, a basketball coach here, Wooden, I think his name was,” Kelly said wryly, referring to John Wooden. “He did a pretty good job with that, so we try to follow coach Wooden’s model.”
Of course, Wooden never had to coin a saying for starting a season 1-5, much less in back-to-back years.
All that matters to Kelly’s Bruins is that they are trending upward once again. Their second late-season surge in as many years has left them on the verge of UCLA’s biggest game since late in the 2015 season.
The Bruins (4-5 overall, 4-2 Pac-12 Conference) have won three consecutive games for the first time under Kelly and could trumpet their arrival as a conference heavyweight Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium with a victory over No. 7 Utah (8-1, 5-1) as three-touchdown underdogs.
Leave it to receiver Ethan Fernea, the former walk-on turned hero among fans for his big catches and reporters for his lack of robotic responses, to illustrate the significance of the moment.
“Coach Kelly has said it before — there’s nothing better than to get the chance to play big-time games in November,” Fernea said, revealing a phrase the coach has never uttered with the media since his arrival at UCLA.
Safety Stephan Blaylock disclosed another tidbit when he said the secondary has been playing more press coverage in recent weeks as part of the defense’s transformation from bordering on historically bad to respectable.
“We get to be physical with them,” Blaylock said of the new approach. “A lot of times, when you watch the film [of opposing receivers making catches], a lot of guys are playing off, letting them run freely. When you get pressed up, you’re messing up their route tree.”
Kelly has contributed to his team’s turnaround by simplifying the offense and putting his top playmakers in position to thrive. Against Utah’s expected man coverage defense, that could mean seeking advantageous one-on-one matchups as well as utilizing quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson for more than his strong arm.
“Man coverage,” Thompson-Robinson said, “leaves a lot of room for the quarterback to run.”
The Bruins could have gone into seclusion after failing to win a nonconference game for a second consecutive season and then opening Pac-12 play by losing two of their first three games.
But having been in that predicament before actually helped players believe they could reverse their fortunes once more.
“It’s nothing new,” center Boss Tagaloa said, “it‘s just it all came down to whether we want it.”
Tagaloa was among a group of seniors who showed they did not want to end their college careers on an epic losing streak. Week after week, loss after loss, their sustained effort in practice made their teammates realize they had not given up.
“Watching those guys really inspires everybody, even the young guys, to be ready,” said Jason Harris, a graduate transfer linebacker.
Now, just a month after they were a national punchline, the Bruins can sock it to the doubters if they can notch their first victory over a top-10 team since beating No. 7 Texas in 2010.
Either way, they have already shown impressive resolve for a team that appeared in need of a defibrillator.
As Wooden once put it, things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.