For the first time since 2017, this isn’t the end for UCLA’s football season.
After FS1 broadcasts Saturday’s regular-season finale against California at 7:30 p.m., the Bruins (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) are bound for a bowl. It’ll be their first postseason appearance of the Chip Kelly era.
UCLA has bowl eligibility, rivalry bragging rights and the best record of Kelly’s tenure. So what else is there to fight for Saturday night at the Rose Bowl? Plenty, the Bruins say.
“Guys are chomping at the bit again,” senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said. “[We] want to put ourselves in the best position possible to make the best bowl game and move on from there and leave on a high note. So this isn’t just a pushover game.”
Already eliminated from Pac-12 Conference championship and Rose Bowl game contention, the Bruins are likely to land in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego or Las Vegas Bowl, which pick third and fourth, respectively, from the bowl-eligible Pac-12 teams.
Seven-point underdogs against UCLA, the Golden Bears (4-6, 3-4) are trying to claw into the bowl conversation. Cal, which hosts USC next week in a game postponed from Nov. 11, needs to win its last two games to secure its third bowl game in five years under coach Justin Wilcox.
UCLA’s leading tackler on the defensive line will deliver a Thanksgiving spread fit for even the most ravenous of his 300-pound teammates.
Here’s a look at the top matchups and storylines:
Cal offense finds its way
UCLA isn’t the only team celebrating an emphatic rivalry win.
The Bears crushed Stanford last week 41-11 as their offense found its form. Cal has scored 26 or more points in three of its last four games. The only exception was a 10-3 stinker against Arizona when the Bears were shorthanded because of a COVID-19 outbreak among their team. The improvement reached a peak with 636 yards against Stanford.
Cal rushed for 352 yards against the Cardinal and is averaging 179.1 yards per game on the ground, the most for the program since 2012. The resurgent running game comes by committee with no Bear averaging more than 51.6 yards per game. Running back Damien Moore leads the group, while Christopher Brooks follows with 49.7 yards per game. Quarterback Chase Garbers, the brother of UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers, averages 47.1 rushing yards per game.
Pairing a surging offense with Cal’s always stout defense makes the Bears a legitimate threat Saturday. Cal is tied for first in the Pac-12 in points allowed at 21.1 per game and leads the conference in rushing defense at 122 yards allowed per game.
“They’re tough, hard-nosed, physical guys at the point of attack,” Kelly said. “It’s sound, you’re not going to outflank them or out-scheme them.”
The matchup will test a UCLA offense that relies on its running game to develop an early rhythm. The Bruins could be without No. 2 running back Brittain Brown, who missed last week with an undisclosed injury and was limited in practice this week. Zach Charbonnet carried the Bruins’ rushing attack against USC as the Michigan transfer ran for 167 yards to increase his season total to 1,031 to become UCLA’s third 1,000-yard rusher under Kelly.
Super senior sendoffs
While the Bruins have 18 seniors on the roster, there’s no guarantee all of them will be honored during Saturday’s pregame senior day ceremony. Many players have eligibility from the additional pandemic year. That includes Thompson-Robinson, who said he’ll wait until after the season to decide whether to return for a fifth season.
The eligibility clock has run out for several Bruins. Defensive backs Obi Eboh, Qwuantrezz Knight and Cameron Johnson, linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, running backs Brown and Ethan Fernea, defensive lineman Datona Jackson, and offensive lineman Paul Grattan Jr. will suit up for their final home games Saturday.
UCLA is the favorite, but California is healthy and hungry in its quest to become bowl eligible. Here’s why the Golden Bears are the better bet.
For Fernea, UCLA’s longest-tenured player, who joined the team in 2016, the imminent end to his college football career hadn’t set in fully this week. He couldn’t quite process the last six years, during which he rose from walk-on to scholarship leader, wore the program’s special No. 36 jersey and scored two touchdowns against USC, including a 42-yard run last week while wearing a cast on his surgically repaired wrist.
“I try to just smile about the journey and not be sad that it’s over,” Fernea said. “It’s been a hell of a ride and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And hopefully we can finish with a victory.”