Just as they were a week ago, the Bruins are 60 minutes away from bowl eligibility for the first time in the Chip Kelly era.
The only difference now is they have to travel to the mountains to get it.
A week after failing to get its sixth win of the season, UCLA football (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) will square off against Utah (4-3, 3-1) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, with a chance to guarantee its first .500 or better regular season since 2017. In his four years as the Bruins’ head coach, Kelly has yet to reach a bowl game, with Oregon’s Fiesta Bowl win in 2013 marking his last collegiate postseason appearance.
However, redshirt junior defensive back Martell Irby said his team’s focus isn’t on bowl games despite what could be on the line on Saturday.
“We’re aware of bowl eligibility and everything that can come of getting a couple more wins,” Irby said. “But we try not to allow that to get in our head because it’s easy to get wrapped up in that. … Right now, that most important thing is Utah.”
The last time it played in Rice-Eccles Stadium, UCLA needed to win two of its last three games in the 2019 regular season to hit the six-win plateau. The Bruins would go on to lose that game 49-3 – their worst loss in more than six years at that point – before losing their last two games to finish the season 4-8.
Since Kelly took over ahead of the 2018 season, UCLA is 0-2 against Utah with an average margin of defeat of 38.5 points, and the Bruins have given up more than 40 points against the Utes in each of their last four contests.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Kyle Philips – who caught seven passes for 86 yards in his lone career game against Utah in 2019 – said he enjoys playing in Salt Lake City despite his team’s recent track record against the Utes.
“I personally love playing there,” Philips said. “They have a really packed, loud stadium, so it makes the stadium a little more exciting – and Utah’s a great football program.”
Utah will trot out a number of new faces since the last time the Bruins and Utes faced off in 2019, including at the quarterback position.
Instead of Tyler Huntley, who put up 335 passing yards and three total touchdowns against UCLA two years ago, the blue and gold will line up against Cameron Rising. The sophomore started the season as the backup signal-caller to Charlie Brewer but took over as the team’s starting quarterback after Utah’s third game of the season.
Since throwing for 137 yards against Washington State in week four, Rising has averaged 273.3 passing yards per game across his last three contests. The Texas transfer has also added 159 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns across that same three-game span.
Senior linebacker Bo Calvert said he respects Rising’s recent play but added that he thinks UCLA’s pressure-based defensive game plan will get to the sophomore signal-caller.
“He’s a good kid, he makes good decisions, he’s poised,” Calvert said. “(But) at the end of the day, every quarterback’s the same when you get in his face. … Eventually, every quarterback’s going to quit under a certain amount of pressure.”
UCLA, on the other hand, still has a question mark at the signal-caller position. Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has started every game this year for the Bruins but left last week’s game with an injury late in the fourth quarter.
Kelly said Thompson-Robinson was available at practice Monday and Wednesday but would not confirm if the usual starter has been throwing the ball or if he has been taking first-team reps. If Thompson-Robinson can’t go, redshirt freshman Ethan Garbers would start in his place.
Whether it’s Garbers or Thompson-Robinson, Philips said UCLA’s preparation and game plan will remain the same.
“Nothing changes with the way we practice,” Philips said. “Nothing changes with our offense. Whatever happens, we’re a next-man-up operation, no matter who it is. We have confidence in all of our guys and so whatever happens, happens.”
While a win would give the Bruins bowl eligibility for the first time in four years, a loss would sink the blue and gold further down the Pac-12 South leaderboard.
Both Utah and Arizona State currently sit 0.6 games ahead of UCLA in the division, meaning a loss would put the Bruins 1.5 games back of first place, with three games remaining. A loss would also open the door for USC – who is facing winless Arizona on Saturday – to tie UCLA for third place in the standings.
But despite all the numbers, tiebreakers and scenarios at play Saturday, Kelly said the Pac-12 South standings are simple.
“We always have to win to stay in contention in the Pac-12 South,” Kelly said. “We’re just going round and round and round the scenarios, but if you don’t win then it really doesn’t matter.”
Kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN.