UCLA is staying home for the holiday bowl season. It might not be as festive as it sounds.
Making a shorter drive to SoFi Stadium to face Boise State in the LA Bowl than it does for home games at the Rose Bowl will not guarantee that the Bruins draw more fans than an opponent based 850 miles away.
Boise State is so elated with the direction of its football program that it removed the interim tag from Spencer Danielson’s title Sunday, making him the permanent coach after he guided the team to the Mountain West Conference championship.
Meanwhile, UCLA is forging ahead with Chip Kelly amid a swirl of banners flying over campus calling for his dismissal.
It might be a good thing the roof at SoFi Stadium isn’t fully translucent.
After losing three of their last four games — not to mention five players who have entered the transfer portal and two assistant coaches headed to other teams — the Bruins (7-5) find themselves in need of some holiday cheer.
They might be able to find a sliver of solace with a victory over the Broncos (8-5) on Dec. 16 in the game officially dubbed the Starco Brands LA Bowl Hosted by Gronk after two years of being associated with late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.
Some built-in punch lines remain given the precarious state of the Bruins. Among the one-liners percolating on message boards: Will UCLA have enough players left to field a team? Will Kelly have to walk home if the Bruins lose? Might Kelly begin and end his head coaching career with a loss to Boise State after his Oregon debut in 2009 ended with the infamous LaGarrette Blount postgame punch?
Kelly seemed to be in an especially upbeat mood Sunday for someone who had just lost a former five-star prospect to the transfer portal and a star defensive coordinator to crosstown rival USC. He passionately lobbied for Danielson’s promotion — something that happened only minutes later — and cracked jokes about the bowl’s association with former Arizona and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“If there’s anybody that should have a bowl named after him, it’s Gronk,” Kelly said. “I think he’s great for football. He makes football fun.”
Less amusing were the questions Kelly faced about the departures of freshman quarterback Dante Moore and defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn. Kelly said the remaining assistant coaches would collaborate to run the defense in the bowl game after UCLA’s efforts to retain Lynn failed.
“We made a push to keep D’Anton, obviously we weren’t in the ballpark from that standpoint,” Kelly said, alluding to the Trojans making him one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in college football, “but I think D’Anton is a tremendous young football coach. USC wasn’t the only team that was courting him. … It was a tough decision for him, but he has to do what’s best for him and his family and I wish him all the best. I love D’Anton, I think he’s a special, special coach and he’s got a bright future in this game.”
Kelly also confirmed that quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson had left to become the offensive coordinator at Oregon State and would not participate in UCLA’s bowl game preparations. Gunderson had played quarterback for the Beavers, becoming team captain during his senior season in 2007.
The Bruins are trying to solidify their quarterback situation after Moore left with some pointed words that implied he was not satisfied with his development during one season as a Bruin in which he tallied nearly as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes (11).
“For these next upcoming years, I just want to go to a place where I can get developed,” Moore told 247Sports. “That’s the main thing is really development, making sure you’re bettering yourself every day and having a staff around you that’s going to help develop you.”
Relayed Moore’s comments, Kelly said he did not want to address them because he had not previously seen them. The coach said he did speak with Moore before he left.
“We had a good conversation and we wish him well,” Kelly said, “and if we can assist him in any way where he’s headed next, that’s what our process is whether you spend a day here or you’re here for five years, our job is to help you.”
In perhaps the week’s most encouraging development, Kelly said he anticipated starting quarterback Ethan Garbers being available for the bowl game after Garbers left the Bruins’ 33-7 loss to Cal because of an apparent arm injury.
Since UCLA sputtered to the end of the regular season, five players — all on offense — have headed to the transfer portal, with tight end Carsen Ryan, offensive lineman Jake Wiley and wide receivers Kam Brown and Keegan Jones joining Moore. Kelly said there were “a couple” of players in the portal who might continue to practice with the Bruins and play in the bowl game and that every remaining player had participated in the two bowl practices the team had staged.
As far as possible bowl opt-outs go, Kelly said he had already spoken with edge rusher Laiatu Latu and would communicate with his mother Wednesday at an event for finalists for the Lombardi Award that goes to the top lineman in college football. Latu is widely expected to be a top pick in the 2024 NFL draft.
“We’ll make the best decision for Latu,” Kelly said, “but it will be his and his family’s decision.”
After his team tied for seventh place in the Pac-12, Kelly said playing a conference champion left the Bruins “really excited” about a chance to send out their seniors the right way after their senior-night dud against Cal at the Rose Bowl.
Kelly’s detractors might point out that he has gone 2-3 against Mountain West opponents at UCLA, beating Hawaii and San Diego State but losing to Fresno State twice and becoming the first coach in school history to lose to San Diego State.
With the holidays fast approaching, beating Boise State might give the Bruins a chance to momentarily go from ho-hum to ho-ho-ho.