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UCLA at Stanford: Here are the top storylines as Bruins try to regain momentum

UCLA players rush onto the football field.
In a blur of motion, the UCLA Bruins rush on to the field before their game against Fresno State on Sept. 18 at the Rose Bowl.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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No. 24 UCLA (2-1) at Stanford (2-1)

3 p.m. Saturday at Stanford Stadium

TV: Pac-12 Networks.

Betting line: UCLA by 4½ points.

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Any reasonable calculus of UCLA’s final record counted this game as a win after the Bruins opened the season with two convincing victories and Stanford sputtered against Kansas State. But Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee’s emergence amid back-to-back triumphs over USC and Vanderbilt moves it back into could-go-either-way territory. Los Angeles Times staff writer Ben Bolch looks at the game’s matchups and storylines:

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Scary similarities

UCLA's Chip Kelly coaches from the sideline.
Chip Kelly coaches the Bruins against Hawaii on Aug. 28 at the Coliseum.
(Kysung Gong / Associated Press)

UCLA opened the season with a thrilling victory over a Southeastern Conference team and a dominant win over Hawaii at the Rose Bowl.

It moved into the national rankings. It lost a game to a Group of Five team.

Then it went on the road to face Stanford in a must-win game for its beleaguered coach.

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The year was 2017. It was the beginning of the final countdown for coach Jim Mora, who lost that game to Stanford and was fired two months later after a loss to USC.

Embattled UCLA coach Chip Kelly, whose team has taken a comparable path heading into its game against the Cardinal, would probably call the similarities “TBU — True But Useless.” He might be right, if his team can win the game to put his shaky status on more solid footing.

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Run for it

UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs with the football past Fresno State players.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson eludes Fresno State defenders.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

One of the biggest predictors of UCLA’s success will be whether it can restore the run game that trampled Hawaii and Louisiana State.

The Bruins averaged 227 rushing yards in those games before managing only 117 yards in their loss to Fresno State. The latter tally included 67 rushing yards from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, with running backs Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet combining for 42 yards and averaging just 2.8 yards per carry.

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What happens if Stanford mimics the approach of Fresno State, stacking the box tighter than a Taco Bell value meal?

“We know that Chip Kelly is going to have a good game plan for us going in there,” Brown said. “I think we will run the ball as much as we can.”

It might help that Stanford hasn’t exactly been stout against the run, giving up 210.7 yards per game. Last season, Brown ran for a career-high 219 yards against the Cardinal.

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Nice to meet you?

UCLA's Mike Martinez catches a touchdown pass.
UCLA tight end Mike Martinez catches a touchdown pass against Colorado on Nov. 7 in Boulder, Colo.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

There could be some new faces in the starting lineup for both teams.

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Kelly said none of his players had been ruled out for the game, which might be news to Mike Martinez. The tight end navigated the practice field on a scooter earlier this week, with his left foot encased in a walking boot.

Safety Quentin Lake and defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia also appeared questionable after having departed the Fresno State game with injuries. Both players were working with trainers during the final midweek portion of practice open to the media.

Edge rusher Mitchell Agude also appeared to be dealing with a leg issue. He showed an initial burst in drills before pulling up and moving a bit stiffly.

Stanford will be without running backs Austin Jones, E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins, leaving Nathaniel Peat as the only available player at that position who is on scholarship.

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Welcome back

Stanford football players follow head coach David Shaw onto the field.
Stanford head coach David Shaw leads his team onto the field before a game against Colorado on Nov. 14, 2020.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

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This will be Stanford’s first home game since last November and its first home game in front of fans since facing Notre Dame on Nov. 30, 2019. Fans will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of game time.

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