The UC Davis transfer is the surprise, breakout star of the 2018 Pac-12 season
PASADENA, Calif. — Joshua Kelley was no different from countless other kids growing up in southern California.
"This was a game I watched since I was eight years old," said a beaming Kelley of the UCLA-USC rivalry, adding it's "what big-time college football is about."
A product of Lancaster — a community in the furthest, northeastern corner of Los Angeles County — Kelley separated himself from other local youth who tune into the crosstown showdown every November by becoming a participant in the rivalry. The Eastside High School alum then took it one step further on Nov. 17: With 289 rushing yards, Kelley stands alone with the single-most productive performance against USC in UCLA football history.
Any youngster who watches a game on TV or puts on a helmet in junior leagues fantasizes of the kind of record-setting effort Kelley put forth at the Rose Bowl, hence the running back calling just playing in the rivalry "dreamlike." It's also a major milestone that would have seemed improbable just two years ago.
In 2016, Kelley finished the season at FCS program UC Davis with a touchdown and 57 rushing yards against Sacramento State. Against USC, he nearly matched his entire output from that afternoon on a single scoring run of 55 yards.
"That was a great play call by coach [Chip] Kelly. I just got to rip and run," Kelley said.
Kelly called Kelley's number plenty more times on the day; 39, to be exact. The 40-carry workload marked yet another new career high for the redshirt junior in a season full of them. Consider it making up for lost time — both for Kelley, and UCLA football.
While Kelley operated primarily as a change-of-pace at UC Davis two years ago, UCLA limped through a season that made rushing records for all the wrong reasons. The Bruins averaged 2.93 yards per carry as a team in 2016, and just 84.25 yards per game. The 1,188 yards Kelley's gained on the ground heading into the regular-season finale against Stanford are 177 more than UCLA gained for the entirety of that season.
The Bruins obviously needed help in the backfield, making the decision for then-head coach Jim Mora to add the transfer a no-brainer. Choosing UCLA was equally simple for Kelley, who left little doubt as to whether he was more likely to don Bruin blue or Trojan cardinal while watching those games growing up, as Thuc Nhi Nguyen of the Los Angeles Daily News detailed.
For a new generation of UCLA-USC viewers, Kelley's name is now etched in a lore that includes Brett Hundley, Johnathan Franklin, Cade McNown, Gaston Green (who held the record Kelley broke); though the former Bruin who might warrant mention is Norm Dow, the quarterback who became an unlikely hero filling in for 1967 Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban in UCLA's '66 defeat of the Trojans.
Kelley may have come into his heroic showing against USC as a more established commodity — USC head coach Clay Helton talked of the "respect" the Trojans had for him as a "physical back, and a very good runner" — but his time in the spotlight is perhaps just as unlikely.
See, as improbable as Kelley emerging as a Pac-12 star may have been two years ago, it may have been just as much of a stretch to predict two months ago.
He was named the starter for the 2018 season opener against Cincinnati, but garnered just six carries for 20 yards in the loss. Freshman teammate Kazmeir Allen stole the show with a 74-yard touchdown run. Kelley mustered just seven yards on five carries the next time out at Oklahoma.
By Week 3, Kelley was out of the backfield rotation.
"I had to look myself in the mirror," Kelley said. "Just because I got myself to this position doesn’t mean I have to stop working. You have to continue to earn the right to stay here.
"Football is an up and down sport. Coach [Kelly] says the same about life. Some days it’s going to be great. Some days it won’t be. I would just tell myself, ‘you have to keep fighting,'" he added.
Coaches will often repeat a mantra of how you play is a reflection of how you practice, and Kelley became a living embodiment of that ideal. He went to work in the next two weeks to regain a role in time for the Pac-12 opener against Colorado, ripping off 124 yards on 12 carries.
"Josh had a really good two weeks of training leading to that," Kelly said. "His spot was earned... How he played against Colorado is kinda how he trains."
And that's how Kelley's continued to play, rushing for more than 100 yards in five of the next seven games that followed, culminating in rivalry-game history.
Sometimes dreams become reality.