The Bruins are out to shake off a winless start to the football season when they challenge the host California Golden Bears at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif. So far, the Bruins are 0-5 on the year and 0-2 in conference action, but a late rally last week against the then-No. 10 Washington Huskies nearly saw them pull off the upset at home in a 31-24 decision.
At the very least, the Week 6 effort gives UCLA a boost in confidence despite being on the bottom rung of the Pac-12 South ladder.
Meanwhile, Cal also carries a winless conference record at 0-2 and sits in the cellar of the Pac-12 North standings, despite being an AP Top 25 team just a month ago after three straight non-conference wins to begin the campaign. Since then, the Bears have lost two straight conference contests to the then-No. 19 Oregon Ducks (while Cal was No. 24) and the Arizona Wildcats, by respective 42-24 and 24-17 scores, to fall back to a 3-2 overall mark.
UCLA at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Network
Spread: California -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The rise of Kelly’s offense
OK, so it’s only one game. But 422 total yards against one of the nation’s most vaunted defenses is nothing to sneeze at. And since Kelly’s considered an offensive whiz, then that lends even more credibility to UCLA’s improved offensive performance last week against Washington. Fact is, Kelly’s crew rolled up an average of 6.5 yards per play on UW, far better than the Huskies’ previous high of 5.2 allowed to the Auburn Tigers in Week 1. The 422 total yards put up by the Bruins also represented the most yards allowed by Washington in a game this year.
Whether this is just a one-off against a national contender looking past the Bruins at its upcoming game against the Ducks remains to be seen. But how can you look past what Kelly’s done historically on the offensive side of the ball? You just can’t. And that high-profile head coach is making strides with a freshman running the huddle.
2. UCLA’s offense vs. Cal’s defense
Just who is that freshman running the UCLA huddle? That’s quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had his best effort in Week 6, going 27-of-38 passing for 272 yards and two TDs against the Dawgs. The young helmsman has been Kelly’s go-to guy since the season started despite competition from senior QB Wilton Speight, who ran much of the offense for Jim Harbaugh with the Michigan Wolverines for the last two seasons.
DTR, as they call him in SoCal, has had help in the backfield from junior running back Joshua Kelley, who’s coming off two straight 100-yard games — both in Pac-12 action. No running back has done that for the Bruins since Paul Perkins in 2015. Against UDub, Kelley dashed for 116 yards and a touchdown on 27 hauls.
The visitors will need all they can get from the DTR-Kelley combo, as Cal’s defense is no walk in the park, either — it's the 24th-ranked such unit at 331.4 yards allowed per game.
3. Cal’s offense vs. UCLA’s defense
Even though the UCLA ‘D’ held up admirably against Washington last week, it’s still one of football’s worst in terms of points allowed.
Only 28 of the 130 FBS teams have allowed more points so far this season than UCLA, at 182. And of those FBS teams having played just five games, only four have allowed more points than UCLA, with two of them — the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the San Jose State Spartans — winless like the Bruins and another being a first-year FBS team in the Liberty Flames. So it’s up to a middling Cal offense to take advantage of a bend-and-break opponent.
But Bears QB Brandon McIlwain has to be better than he was in his first college start in Week 6. The sophomore turned the ball over four times in the second half of last week’s loss to Arizona. The dual-threat pivot did, however, complete 32-of-43 passes for 315 yards and rushed for another 107. McIlwain also ran for 128 yards in a Week 5 loss to Oregon, becoming the first Cal pivot to hit 100 yards rushing since Joe Kapp did so in 1958.
UCLA is 94th in the nation against the run, allowing 185.8 yards per game, so there’s real estate to be gained on the ground by the host side. And the Cal offense is also helped by kick returner Ashtyn Davis, a junior who’s got the 12th-best runback average in the nation at 28.2 yards.
UCLA has lost 11 straight road games in Pac-12 play and 12 consecutive overall. But there’s no denying that the Bruins head into Saturday’s conference tilt coming off their best performance of the season against the best team in the conference. Plus, the Bruins have beaten the Bears in four of the last five head-to-head matchups.
That said, UCLA has been a tire fire since the season kicked off, even with much-ballyhooed coach Kelly taking over the reins of the team. The opposite can be said of Cal since the top of the campaign, as it reeled off three non-conference victories to set itself up well for Pac-12 action.
The trouble is, that loss to the Wildcats last week didn’t exactly show that the Golden Bears are making any progress, although all the warm fuzzies caught from the 3-0 start could have been cooled by their loss to the Ducks in that Week 5 Pac-12 opener featuring ranked teams, meaning that the subsequent loss may have been more the anomaly than the usual for the Cal club.
Then again, those three early-season wins — over the North Carolina Tar Heels, the BYU Cougars and the FCS Idaho State Vandals — don’t exactly stand out as signature victories.
So go with team trending upward — and with the offensive guru coaching it — in an upset.