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UCLA faces Arizona State in a continuation of bizarre COVID-19 circumstances

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs against California on Nov. 15.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs against California on Nov. 15. Thompson-Robinson could play against Arizona State on Saturday.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

If all goes well, UCLA will bring its starting quarterback out of a two-week quarantine to play an opponent staging its home opener in early December after having its last three games canceled.

It’s enough to delight absurdists who might also note that Arizona State will celebrate its return to present-day football by wearing throwback uniforms.

No, they’re not from 1918, the year of the last pandemic leading to such global upheaval.

The Bruins continue to trudge onward amid the bizarre circumstances, grateful for the chance to play Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, even if it will be their fifth game of 2020 and only the second for the Sun Devils.

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The game appeared on track to be played even after UCLA announced Friday evening that it had one person within the program test positive for COVID-19 this week. One person close to the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly disclose specifics of test results, said the positive involved a player and placed one additional player in quarantine because of contact tracing.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly said he’s not mulling the inequities that might lead some to question the significance of such a matchup.

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels played well against UCLA last season, but he’ll face a revamped Bruins defense Saturday.

“I don’t know what determines asterisks,” Kelly said. “You could say they’re fresh. You know, we’ve played four games in a row and we’ve got injuries to deal with. We don’t worry about that stuff; we worry about our preparation and having a good Wednesday, so that’s never been a conversation that any of us have had here.”

The Bruins (2-2) have surely had lots of discussions about the status of Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The starting quarterback who was sidelined the last two weeks because of contact tracing procedures related to COVID-19 could be among nine UCLA players to return against Arizona State (0-1).

A victory over the Sun Devils would give the Bruins a winning record for the first time in their three seasons under Kelly and continue their success in 2020 against winless teams. UCLA’s two victories this season came against California and Arizona, teams that are a combined 0-6.

Bruins coaches spent much of this week trying to parse an opponent that hasn’t played in nearly a month, when Arizona State failed to secure an onside kick and gave up two touchdowns in the final three minutes of a crushing 28-27 loss to USC at the Coliseum.

The Sun Devils’ season was put on hold the following week amid a flurry of positive tests for the coronavirus that spread to coach Herm Edwards. They resumed practice only last week in what amounted to a second training camp to help condition players who had fallen out of shape.

The 1960 Olympics champion in the decathlon was a regular at UCLA sporting events. “We’ve really lost a legend,” said former athletic director Dan Guerrero.

“It’s kind of like you’re starting over again,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Zak Hill told reporters this week.

The new beginning will come amid a few farewells. The Sun Devils indefinitely suspended defensive backs Jack Jones and Aashari Crosswell this week before Crosswell, a onetime All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection who had lost his starting spot to DeAndre Pierce, announced he was opting out of the rest of the season to prepare for the NFL draft.

UCLA has navigated its own pandemic potholes, losing right tackle Jake Burton to Baylor when it appeared the Pac-12 season would not be played and punter Collin Flintoft to surgery that was scheduled with a 2021 season start date in mind.

The Bruins also played Cal on a 43-hour turnaround after a scheduled game against Utah had been wiped out by the virus. UCLA mauled its in-state rival in the Golden Bears’ season opener, the Bruins’ 34-10 victory showing that they can make the best of limited preparation.

But what does any of this mean in the big picture? Kelly told a reporter inquiring about all the disparities that he wasn’t concerned with which teams might have lucked into the biggest advantages this season.

“I’m not writing a book, so I don’t look back at a season and wax poetic over what was the preparation here or there,” Kelly said. “We’re always moving forward, so I leave that up to guys like you that are the experts at it.”


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