UCLA football shifts focus to beating Cal, playing bowl game

The late summer heat shimmered off the artificial turf a full season ahead of him, alongside a small group of reporters.

Kazmeir Allen stood on this practice field sauna and set the agenda for UCLA’s season.

“Rose bowl or bust,” said the wide receiver.

It wasn’t a player who went rogue in a squad conditioned never to look ahead, just focused on that day, on what it takes to have a really good Saturday. That same week, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson admitted he had considered leading the Bruins back to the Rose Bowl every day. Guard Jon Gaines II, usually as cautious of his comments as anyone in college football, alluded to even greater expectations.

“Win every game,” Gaines said.

The Bruins have come a long way since those dreamy days.

A long way down.

Back-to-back losses, including a setback to USC, have left UCLA considering far less enticing options. The Bruins (8-3 overall, 5-3 Pac-12) are down to 18th in the College Football Playoff rankings and play their last regular season game against California on Friday afternoon (4-7, 2-6). at Memorial Stadium to avoid getting into contention for the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl.

The heavy white bandage on Thompson-Robinson’s throwing hand in practice this week was the perfect metaphor for a battered team trying to send themselves a get well card.

“Super difficult, obviously,” Thompson-Robinson said of the move to USC from the 48-45 loss, during which he absorbed several vicious hits and had four turnovers. “We’re just trying to go to Cal and have one last hooray together.”

At least the team that stands between UCLA and full Meltdown mode deserves his full attention. Call it the Grudge Bowl.

Cal is why University of California rulers are considering blocking UCLA’s intended move to the Big Ten conference in 2024, part of an expanded coast-to-coast conference. A decision is expected next month.

The sister schools have competed to be named the top public university in the country — the Bruins topped the latest US News & World Report rankings — but the parallels with football aren’t nearly as perfect.

As Cal heads for a third straight losing season under coach Justin Wilcox, the Bruins’ slow, steady rise under Chip Kelly continues. If UCLA can beat the Golden Bears and win a mid-tier bowl game, it would have 10 wins for the first time since 2014 while also breaking the school’s single-season record.

California linebacker Jackson Sirmon celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown.

California linebacker Jackson Sirmon (8) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in recovering a Stanford fumble in the second half at Berkeley on Saturday.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

First things first for the coach, of course, who refuses to look ahead.

“You can’t make it to ten if you don’t make it to nine,” Kelly said, “so we have to make it to nine first, and that’s this Friday.”

Two more wins would bring Kelly, who has raced 26-28 in five seasons with the Bruins, back to .500, an unimaginable place when he agreed to his first five-year, $23.3 million contract in November 2017 while also promoting “relationships.” “courtes friendships and championships.”

Building an elite offense led by Thompson-Robinson and a number of talented running backs followed, but the Bruins haven’t had nearly as much success on the defensive side of the ball. After four disappointing seasons, Kelly replaced defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro with Bill McGovern.

UCLA’s defense showed promise early this season before returning to familiar struggles as the competition stiffened. McGovern has missed the last four games for unspecified reasons and is likely to be out again on Friday as Kelly has hinted it is a health issue based on recent comments that McGovern is “feeling better”.

McGovern, who turns 61 on New Year’s Eve and has one season left on his two-year, $1.8 million contract, was back at practice this week as a visitor, drawing smiles from the players.

“It was a little uncomfortable not having him out here, just standing on the sidelines and hearing his voice,” said defense attorney Alex Johnson, “so it was really cool to see him out here.”

A shortened week could help the Bruins put the misery of back-to-back losses behind them because they have no choice but to move on quickly. Their itinerary included a Thanksgiving dinner at the team’s Bay Area hotel, where everyone was grateful the season didn’t end in a crushing loss to the Trojans.

“We’re just talking about the ‘finish,'” linebacker Kain Medrano said of the Bruins’ motivation. “That’s a big motto for us, just finish, whether it’s ending the day, ending the game, ending the week. So it’s just the end of the season.”

It will be a challenging endeavor as the season can no longer take them where they wanted to be.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-11-24/ucla-cal-football-grudge-bowl UCLA football shifts focus to beating Cal, playing bowl game

Emma Bowman

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