After gut-wrenching loss, UCLA looks to snap skid and end season on a positive note

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson celebrates after scoring a touchdown against USC in the first half.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson celebrates after scoring a touchdown against USC in the first half on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The late-summer heat glimmered off the artificial turf, a whole season in front of him, in addition to a small group of reporters.

Kazmeir Allen stood on that sauna of a practice field and set the agenda for UCLA's season.

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

It wasn’t a player going rogue on a roster conditioned never to look ahead, to focus only on that day, on what it would take to have a really good Saturday. That same week, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson acknowledged thinking about leading the Bruins back to the Rose Bowl every day. Guard Jon Gaines II, usually as guarded with 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.

Two consecutive losses, including a tearjerker of a setback against USC, have left UCLA contemplating far less enticing possibilities. Having dropped to No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Bruins (8-3 overall, 5-3 Pac-12) will enter their final regular-season game against California (4-7, 2-6) on Friday afternoon at Memorial Stadium trying to avoid falling into contention for the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl.

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

“Super difficult, obviously,” Thompson-Robinson said of moving on from the 48-45 loss to USC in which he absorbed several vicious hits and had four turnovers. “We're just trying to go into Cal and have one last hurrah together.”

At least the team standing between UCLA and full meltdown mode figures to get its full attention. Call it the Grudge Bowl.

Cal is the reason the University of California regents are considering blocking UCLA’s intended move to the Big Ten Conference in 2024, those governing authorities worried about the Golden Bears being left behind in a diminished Pac-12 while the Bruins log thousands of additional travel miles as part of an expanded coast-to-coast conference. A decision is expected next month.

The sister schools have jockeyed for the designation of being the nation’s top public university — the schools shared the honor in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings — but the football parallels aren’t nearly as perfect.

While Cal is headed for a third consecutive losing season under coach Justin Wilcox, the Bruins’ slow, steady climb under Chip Kelly continues. If UCLA can beat the Golden Bears and win a mid-tier bowl game, it would notch 10 victories for the first time since 2014 while tying the school’s single-season record.

California linebacker Jackson Sirmon celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown.
California linebacker Jackson Sirmon (8) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown on a recovery of a Stanford fumble during the second half in Berkeley on Saturday. (Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

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

“You can’t get to 10 unless you get to nine,” Kelly said, “so we’ve got to get to nine first and that’s this Friday.”

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

The construction of an elite offense led by Thompson-Robinson and a succession 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 early promise this season before reverting to familiar struggles once the competition stiffened. McGovern has missed the last four games for unspecified reasons and likely will be out again Friday with what Kelly intimated was a health issue based on recent comments about McGovern “feeling better.”

McGovern, who will turn 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, eliciting smiles from players.

“It’s kind of been a little awkward not having him out here, just even being on the sidelines, hearing his voice,” defensive back Alex Johnson said, “so it was really cool to see him out here.”

A shortened week could help the Bruins put the misery of back-to-back defeats behind them because they have no choice but to move on quickly. Their itinerary called for a Thanksgiving meal at the team hotel in the Bay Area, everyone thankful that the season didn’t end with a devastating defeat to the Trojans.

“We just talk about, ‘Finish,’ ” linebacker Kain Medrano said of the Bruins’ motivation. “That is a big motto for us, to just finish, whether it’s finish the day, finish the game, finish the week. So it’s just finish the season.”

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

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.