UCLA vs Arizona State : All six teams in the jumbled division are still alive for a shot for the championship, including UCLA, no matter how underwhelming its 2-7 overall record appears.
The odds are long, but with a 2-4 record in conference play, the Bruins could still win the South with a three-game winning streak to end the season, starting at Arizona State at 11 a.m. PT Saturday, and with additional losses by Colorado, Utah and Arizona.
UCLA had a chance to grab hold of its own destiny two weeks ago when it hosted Utah on a short week, but let it slip with six dropped passes and 24 missed tackles. The next week, hours after the first-place Utes lost to Arizona State, the Bruins could have moved within a half-game of the top spot with a win. Then they dropped six more passes, committed 11 penalties and had a 27-point swing on special-teams mistakes alone in another loss.
With such a tight conference race, the Bruins are left reviewing — and hoping to learn from — the many self-inflicted wounds.
“You definitely look back at those mistakes that you made and they’re so minute, but at the same time they’re really big,” redshirt senior receiver Christian Pabico said. “A lot of coaches always emphasize that the little things matter and it definitely holds true.”
With every 100-yard rushing game Joshua Kelley collects, the more resistant he is to praise. For everything his coaches and teammates give him — their trust, their blocking and their encouragement — the redshirt junior feels like the least he can do is keep running the ball.
“I gotta produce for this team, so I always tell myself that whatever opportunity I get, I have to make the most of it,” Kelly said after he ran for a career-high 161 yards against Oregon. “It’s really all the offensive line, the tight ends, receivers, quarterbacks making reads, there’s so much that goes into that.”
The UC Davis transfer averages 132.2 rushing yards per game in conference play and has five 100-yard rushing performances in the past six games. In the past two years combined, the Bruins had just two 100-yard rushing games.
Kelley has touchdowns in five consecutive games and, with a score Saturday, will become the first Bruin with touchdowns in six consecutive games since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2005. He’s on pace to become the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Bruins since Paul Perkins collected 1,343 rushing yards in 2015.
Whenever reporters remind Kelley of his achievements, the jolly running back just smiles and sheepishly nods his head. He thanks the reporter for bringing it up the way he thanks teammates for their blocks. But as one of the brightest spots of UCLA’s uneven season, Kelley receives many thanks as well.
“He’s aggressive. I love the way he runs,” center Boss Tagaloa said. “It makes us look good, too.”
Atonio Mafi bull-rushed his way into becoming a feared high-school defensive lineman, but the 6-foot-2 defensive lineman – whose slimmed down weight of 370 is still heavier than any ASU offensive lineman he’ll face this weekend – has learned he won’t make it in the Pac-12 as a one-trick, pass-rushing pony.
“In college, everyone’s the same size, everyone’s been in the program and is more experienced, so bull-rushing isn’t going to work as well,” the freshman said. “I just need to work on my finesse moves.”
UCLA, sorely lacking in pass rush, needs as many moves as possible from all its young defensive linemen as the Bruins rank 11th in the Pac-12 in sacks with just 13 in nine games. They have just one in the past three games and may not have their leading sack-artist at full strength this week.
Outside linebacker Keisean Lucier-South injured his left arm against Oregon and was limited in most contact tackle drills this week in practice. He has a team-high four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.
The Bruins have already been without top pass-rushing prospect Jaelan Phillips (concussions) since the end of September.
The Sun Devils (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) have allowed only 10 sacks this season, the second-fewest in the conference. The offensive line has also blocked for the Pac-12’s leading rusher Eno Benjamin and protected for quarterback Manny Wilkins, one of the most experience signal-callers in the wild Pac-12 South, who throws to receiver N’Keal Harry, the second-leading receiver in the conference.
“They’re going to give us some problems,” Mafi said,