Chip Kelly will never admit that there is anything beyond having a good Wednesday or making that day better than the previous day. But Saturday is kind of a big deal. UCLA travels to Salt Lake City to play Utah in a game that goes a long way in determining the season-ending fate for both teams.
UCLA vs. Utah; A Season On The Line
Utah is 8-1 overall and 5-1 in conference play. They have a one game lead in the South division over USC and UCLA. They currently sit at number seven on the college football playoff rankings. Realistically, they need to win out and beat Oregon in the conference title game to have even an outside chance at one of the final four spots.
UCLA is, well, they are stunningly 4-5 overall and 4-2 in conference play. As much as looking in the rear-view mirror can hurt, those losses to Arizona and Oregon State are slightly more painful in the “what if” discussion. If the Bruins win their final three games, they are in the conference championship game. Even winning two out of three puts them at 6-6 and in a bowl game. Considering how they started the season, their current status is more than a little attention getting.
The Utes are the dictionary definition of a complete team. They have the #34 offense in the entire country. Quarterback Tyler Huntley is completing 73% of his passes. The senior has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and most impressively has 11 touchdown passes against only one interception. “He is playing really, really efficiently. He can keep plays alive with his legs. The one thing you admire from him is how tough he is. He stands in there and takes shots and then he just keeps getting up and keeps playing,” Kelly said. He added the key is trying to get Huntley out of rhythm, which means maintaining coverage in the defensive backfield, while trying to get a pass rush on him. Huntley did not have a particularly good game in Utah’s blowout win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl last year.
He does not need to carry the team because they also have one of the best running backs in the country in Zack Moss. He is the reason the Utes have the #29 rushing team in the country. Moss ran for 211 yards against UCLA last season and is about to have his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, in addition to 11 touchdowns. “He’s obviously one of the more talented backs we’ll face.” Kelly said it will take a team effort to keep Moss under control. “You have to gang tackle him because he is such a strong runner. He has a unique combination of power and speed. I’m not sure just one guy is going to get him down.”
As if that challenge is not grand enough, Utah comes in with the third overall defense in the country. They yield only 246 yards per game. Last year UCLA got 291 against them. They are very physical at the line. UCLA center Boss Tagaloa said, “They are great upfront. We’ve jut got to come out and match their intensity. Whoever plays harder Saturday is going to win the game. We’ve got to come out and match them physically.” The senior also knows how to channel his inner Chip Kelly. “If everybody does their job on the same play, and just keeps being consistent, it is just all about execution and consistency.”
You scan through all of that and it makes sense why the odds makers have Utah as a three-touchdown favorite.
But it’s not as if the Bruins come in with nothing on their side. Running back Joshua Kelley leads the conference in rushing with 107 yards per game. And quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has completed 70% of his throws the last two games to go with four touchdown passes. It’s a far cry from the 1-5 position the Bruins were in last month. Back then they were in the 100’s in the country in total offense. Now they are 68th. It is still a ways off from the 34th ranking in offense that Utah has, but it makes UCLA more competitive than they have been at any time in the Chip Kelly era.
Even with the record still being one game below .500, UCLA is playing games in November that matter. It’s what is important to any fan base. So, they are pumped up about this week’s game, right? Slow down. Remember these players can now quote their coach verbatim. “It’s a big game but just because it’s the next game we’ve got,” Tagaloa said Wednesday. “We’ve just got to keep that mentality no matter who our opponent is and definitely just come out and execute Saturday.”
Kelly is not surprised his team is in a meaningful November game. It is easy to poke at him for consistently proclaiming that he is only worried that Thursday’s workout be better than Wednesday’s. We have all taken jabs at the trite clichés or at the lack of willingness to acknowledge there is a lot riding on Saturday’s game. But he is certain it is that mantra that kept his team together despite the 1-5 start. “I think our whole message is just staying in the moment. What we’re concerned with is, what’s the next play, what’s the next snap, what’s the next of training look like. Don’t worry about the past, don’t think about the future, just stay in the moment.”
He’s sticking with his company line despite his team being able to control their own future over the next three weeks. But then he may have gone a little too far, with his tongue-in-cheek invoking of the legend. “There was a coach here, a basketball coach here; Wooden I think his name was. He did a pretty good job of that, so we try to follow Coach Wooden’s way.” Is Chip Kelly going to be the Wizard of Wasserman? Wooden never started 0-5, but Kelly is working on the “momentum.”