LOS ANGELES (AP) — Certainty has been in short supply during a college football season played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as UCLA and Stanford know all too well headed into their game on Saturday.
The Bruins played a game on less than 48 hours' notice. The Cardinal relocated their entire team because of coronavirus restrictions in their home county, moving from the Bay Area to Seattle to Corvallis, Oregon, and now to Santa Barbara, California, this month.
“It hasn’t been super easy,” Stanford tight end Tucker Fisk said. “It’s not, like, the most fun traveling around, especially during COVID. But I mean it’s just a testament to how well we’ve done as a team, how well we’ve been able to adapt to these adversities that have been put in front of us.”
Stanford (3-2) finally has some clarity, knowing its game at the Rose Bowl will be the season finale after declining to participate in a bowl.
For UCLA (3-3), the postseason is still in doubt. The Pac-12 is requiring teams to finish with at least a .500 record to be eligible for a bowl, and cancellations have reduced the conference’s number of guaranteed bids to four.
Never one to deal in hypotheticals, coach Chip Kelly wouldn’t say if the Bruins want to play another game, and his players followed suit.
“We’re pretty much focused on Stanford,” tight end Greg Dulcich said. “That’s what’s ahead. Like this whole year has been, we’re taking things in stride and just whatever comes at us we’ll be ready for.”
Both teams have shown signs of progress in spite of the shortened season. Stanford has won three consecutive games decided by less than a touchdown, showing the finishing edge that eluded them last season. UCLA has made significant strides on both lines of scrimmage in Kelly’s third year, and the last-second 43-38 loss to No. 13 Southern California showed how much potential they have.
But even as they wrestle with the idea of what could have been with more games or different circumstances, this season has reinforced a love of the sport.
“You can never take football for granted,” UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said. “I don’t think anybody took this year for granted. You know, we could have not been playing at all."
No one will confuse this Stanford run offense with the best Toby Gerhart or Christian McCaffrey teams but sophomore Austin Jones has been solid with 458 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, including consecutive games with at least 126 yards. The Cardinal are averaging 133 yards per game on the ground, which represents modest progress after struggling badly the previous two seasons.
“For me, personally, I think we’ve kind of started to go back into like old school of Stanford get-after-it football. A lot of power, a lot of gritty just go downhill schemes,” fullback Houston Heimuli said.
Whether UCLA has been able to hold on to the ball has been a strong indicator of success under Kelly. That is especially true this season as the Bruins have committed at least three turnovers in each of their three losses versus giving it away once in three wins.
“We always strive to be perfect but mistakes happen in football, right?” Thompson-Robinson said.
Spending the week in Santa Barbara, a beach enclave 87 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Stanford might have come the closest to a traditional bowl week experience. Players got free time to visit the beach and other sights in town while adhering to social distancing and other cautionary measures, but that wasn’t the biggest perk for Heimuli.
“I will say I’m glad to be in Southern California. It’s, like, nice and warm. Northwest (Washington and Oregon) was a little cold and wet for my tastes,” Heimuli said.
Thompson threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns against the Trojans, his fourth career game with at least 300 yards and three scores through the air.
After that performance, Thompson-Robinson is on the verge of passing Troy Aikman in two significant passing milestones at UCLA. The junior needs 231 yards to jump into eighth place in career passing yards ahead of Aikman’s 5,298, and two more touchdown passes would move him past Aikman’s 41 scoring throws into seventh all-time.
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