It was the college football equivalent of survive and advance.
UCLA persevered through a shaky 35-28 victory over California on Friday at Memorial Stadium to avoid a full-scale implosion and allow the 18th-ranked Bruins to exhale deeply before starting bowl-game preparations.
A robust run game and two fumble recoveries prevented the Bruins (9-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12) from absorbing what would have been a third consecutive loss to end the regular season.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
It’s the defense, stupid
Defensive coordinator Bill McGovern missed a fifth consecutive game for unspecified reasons, though coach Chip Kelly has intimated that he’s dealing with a health issue by saying that McGovern was “feeling better.”
The Bruins’ Kain Medrano caused a late fumble to seal a 35-28 victory at Cal for No. 18 UCLA, which reached nine wins for the first time under Chip Kelly.
It’s unknown whether McGovern could return for the bowl game next month.
The Bruins presumably will face a competent offense in that game, which could present huge problems given their inability to stop anyone in recent weeks. They withstood a big day from Cal quarterback Jack Plummer only after forcing two fumbles, including one on the Golden Bears’ last drive when they had a chance to tie the score or go for the win.
Plummer threw for four touchdowns while repeatedly burning the Bruins’ cornerbacks. UCLA’s secondary would get a big lift in the bowl game if cornerback Devin Kirkwood returns from the apparent arm injury that has sidelined him the last three games.
The future is now
UCLA fans wondering who the Bruins’ next starting running back will be once Zach Charbonnet departs for the NFL might have received their answer Friday.
Freshman T.J. Harden looked worthy of taking over those duties by blending speed, power and toughness while running for a career-high 89 yards in 12 carries, a healthy average of 7.4 yards every time he touched the ball.
“Just a guy that puts his head down and goes to work every day,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said of Harden, who has run for 214 yards and one touchdown while averaging 6.5 yards per carry this season. “He knows obviously there’s guys in front of him, and he’s one of those guys that doesn’t take a rep off in practice, doesn’t take a rep off when it comes to the meeting rooms and nutrition, taking care of your body, so super proud of T.J.”
Unprompted, kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira ended his session with reporters earlier in the week by sharing the virtues of teammate Jack Landherr IV, a semifinalist for the Mannelly Award that goes to the nation’s top long snapper.
Three days later, Landherr went out and lived up to the hype. He forced a fumble on Cal’s punt return late in the third quarter, the ball recovered by UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu. The Bruins went on to kick a field goal on their ensuing drive to take a 27-21 lead.
“I’ve been so lucky to have Jack, really, as my snapper; he’s made my job 100 times easier,” Barr-Mira said earlier in the week. “Obviously, he’s up for top-10 long snapper in the country, he’s one of the best on the field and he’s one of my best friends, so deserves a lot of credit that he doesn’t really get and I know that’s kind of the life of a long snapper and how he goes about his business, but just remember that name, remember Jack.”
He was impossible to forget Friday.
Opting in … or out?
The team that takes the field for a bowl game could have some notable absences.
Thompson-Robinson said he had not decided whether to play or prepare for the NFL draft and would discuss the situation with his agent and family. Charbonnet, widely considered a top running back prospect, is among a handful of other players on the team facing the same decision.
Kelly suggested that bowl participation would be among the topics coaches discussed in meetings with players this week before the bowl destination is known Dec. 4. Bruins fans should probably root for the Las Vegas Bowl given that Thompson-Robinson acknowledged it would be harder for him to sit out a game played in his hometown.
A year ago, it appeared that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was behind college football as most teams got through the regular season unscathed.
Then came the bowl games.
A rash of cases led to cancellations and last-minute replacements. The Bruins were among the unfortunate, pulling out of the Holiday Bowl only hours before the scheduled kickoff. UCLA absorbed some criticism for attending events at public venues in the days before the game, several players shown not wearing masks in videos distributed by the team.
Kelly said the Bruins would take whatever measures were necessary to ensure his team could participate in what would be its first bowl appearance since the Cactus Bowl in 2017.
“Our school does an unbelievable job of making sure we can put our guys in the right situation because it’s really critical that we play,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to protect our ecosystem. Obviously, we missed that last year and no one was happy with that. But our players have been great all season long and we’ve just got to continue.”