When UCLA (1-2) takes on Arizona (0-2) on Saturday at the Rose Bowl at 5 p.m., it will likely be one of only three Pac-12 teams (along with Oregon and Oregon State) to have played all four of its scheduled games. That alone will be a significant feat after the Bruins had to reschedule a game earlier in the season, taking on Colorado instead of Utah on short notice after the Utes were unable to play due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on its roster.
The Bruins had their own bout with the coronavirus last week, as two players tested positive and as many as 10 were unavailable to play due to contact tracing, including third-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
The Bruins still had enough scholarship players available to take the field for what was a 38-35 road loss to Oregon.
The Pac-12 has a rule that players who test positive or come in contact with someone who tested positive must serve a 14-day quarantine, but the Bruins appear to be on course to take on the Wildcats.
Arizona beat UCLA 20-17 last year, but it hasn’t beaten the Bruins at the Rose Bowl since 2010. If both teams can get through final coronavirus tests Saturday morning, UCLA coach Chip Kelly said that will be its own separate victory.
On Thursday night, USC had to cancel its game against Colorado because the Trojans did not have enough scholarship players available because of coronavirus issues.
“You know, 2020 is a unique year for everybody in this world,” Kelly said. “So we’re grateful that we get this opportunity to continue to do something that we love. There’s a lot of people that can’t be in our situation right now.”
The Bruins’ two losses have been by a combined nine points, including last week’s three-point loss to then-No. 11 ranked Oregon, a game that was there for the taking despite the Bruins’ four turnovers.
Kelly was asked if given all of that if the Bruins’ 1-2 start had been discouraging.
“Honestly, I think it is a lot bigger factor for you (media) than them (players),” Kelly said. “After the game in Oregon, this group of guys wanted to go back out there on the field and play them again. Their mindset is, let’s keep playing. They have been awesome.
“I think it is the nature of what we do, (whether) we’re 1-3 or 1-2, and you (media) have to write what you do, and we understand that. But I really believe our players know that they are a good football team and if we stay away from SIWs (self-inflicted wounds) then we have a shot in every game we play, no matter where we are this season.”
The Wildcats, who have lost nine in a row going back to last season, can probably relate. In their season opener, they gave No. 19 USC all it could handle in a 34-30 loss, and they fell behind 37-0 against Washington last week before settling for a 44-27 loss.
“You watch their first game, they played really well against USC and lost it right towards the end,” Kelly said. “And then, really, it was a tale of two halves against Washington. I thought they rallied and did a really good job in the second half, but they dug themselves too big of a hole to get out of, but it was a competitive game with (Grant) Gunnell at quarterback.”
The 6-foot-6 Gunnell threw for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a freshman. He hasn’t thrown an interception this season and threw just one last year.
He is averaging 272 yards passing per game with six touchdowns and is completing 68 percent of his passes, which is second in the Pac-12.
For the Bruins, redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Griffin will likely get his second start in place of Thompson-Robinson, who could miss a second straight game due to quarantine.
Whether it’s Griffin or Thompson-Robinson on the field, the Bruins have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. Thompson-Robinson committed three of the Bruins’ four turnovers in their season-opening 48-42 loss to Colorado. Griffin passed for 195 yards and a touchdown last week, but also committed three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble) in the loss to Oregon.
The Bruins believe their turnovers are the biggest reason for their two losses, and Griffin knows he can’t allow that to happen again if he starts.
“Any turnovers I have in a game, that’s on me,” Griffin said. “It’s unacceptable at the quarterback position, and every game you go in, you want to minimize the turnovers, not to two, not to one, you want to have zero turnovers.”
Griffin was asked how you do that.
“It comes down to two things, fundamentals and decision making,” Griffin said. “So, both are very tangible things. They’re not these far-out things, they’re simple. They’re not easy, but they’re simple and correctable and those are the things I focus on in practice.”
Overall, Kelly was pleased with Griffin’s first first.
“I was impressed by Chase’s overall game,” Kelly said. “I think he has a really good feel for football. He’s a smart and intelligent player and has a really good grasp of situational football.
“Whether it be in a four-minute situation or a two-minute situation, I think he does a nice job. It’s part of the play call that will tell us what we’re trying to execute and get the call into him. I think he’s done a good job understanding the situational part of it.”
The Bruins have had a lot of success using the “Pistol” on offense at times, which has benefited their group of backs. The Bruins average 228 yards rushing per game, led by all-purpose back Demetrius Felton and bruiser Brittain Brown.
“If the back is not on one side or the other, he’s in the middle. It is hard to figure out which way he is going,” Kelly said. “There are some advantages there, it’s a little bit more downhill run.
“We used a lot of the Pistol in the last couple of years because Josh Kelley (now with the Los Angeles Chargers) liked being behind the quarterback. There’s a comfortability factor with the backs, and there are also some things for the defensive guys where you’re not tipping the ball going right or left.”
The Bruins will go against Arizona defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who was the Bruins’ defensive backs coach the previous two seasons before joining the Wildcats.
“I don’t think it benefits us (knowing his coaching style), because it is Paul’s system that he runs,” Kelly said. “We have an understanding of some of the things. I think some things are being done that he did when he was here, but there other things that he is doing that are new.”
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