April 21, 2024

Between reps on the practice field, Kenny Churchwell III tried to soak it all in. The safety glanced at the Wasserman Football Center, his unofficial home since 2018, gleaming on a sunny Southern California morning. He started to check off the milestones in his head.

His last Tuesday practice. His last team meetings. Finally on Saturday, his last college game.

While bowl games often live in the awkward space between season finale and way-too-early preview of what’s to come, UCLA is viewing Saturday’s L.A. Bowl at 4:30 p.m. at SoFi Stadium against Mountain West champion Boise State solely as a full-stop punctuation mark for this run-on season. The Bruins hope to make it an exclamation point.

“As seniors,” Churchwell said, “we gotta leave out with a bang.”

UCLA (7-5) hasn’t won a postseason game since the 2015 Alamo Bowl. Chip Kelly’s third time could be the charm for his first bowl victory in Westwood after the 2020 Holiday Bowl was canceled suddenly because of COVID-19 cases within the Bruins program, and UCLA’s fourth-quarter collapse in last year’s Sun Bowl.

After the defensive meltdown against Pittsburgh, the Bruins reshaped the struggling unit into one of the best in the country. UCLA ranked first nationally in rushing yards given up per game with 68.6 and jumped to 15th in the country in points given up at 18.1, the best average for a UCLA defense since 2007.

Now even without the leader of the renaissance, D’Anton Lynn, who bolted for the defensive coordinator job at USC, the Bruins want to put the finishing touches on the resurgent year.

“We started with goal-setting of what we wanted to accomplish, so this will just be the culmination of what we’ve done throughout the season,” said defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe, who will take over play-calling duties. “For us, as a defense, we just want to finish the way we started and focus on this particular class, the senior class.”

Seniors like Churchwell, linebacker Darius Muasau, center Duke Clemens and outside linebacker Carl Jones Jr. will play their final games in front of a hometown crowd 13 miles from campus. The local bowl game has provided the veterans extra time to savor the final college days. They got to stay in their comfortable on-campus facility for practices. They visited Top Golf and Universal Studios during the bowl festivities. They expect family to fill the stands in SoFi Stadium.

“It’s a very bittersweet feeling, reaching the end of my college career,” said Muasau, who transferred from Hawaii last year and led the Bruins in tackles for consecutive seasons. “But there’s no other place I’d rather do it and no other team I’d rather do it with than my boys.”

UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass against Stanford.

UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau (53) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass against Stanford in October 2022.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The team looks different than the one that walked off the Rose Bowl field a month ago after a deflating loss to California. Star defensive lineman Laiatu Latu opted out of the bowl game in favor of finishing school and preparing for the NFL draft. Players who announced their transfers, including tight end Carsen Ryan, quarterback Dante Moore and starting defensive backs Kamari Ramsey and John Humphrey, did not stay for bowl practices.

Both teams are struggling with roster turnover. Boise State (8-5) will start freshman quarterback C.J. Tiller after Taylen Green, who was named the Mountain West championship game offensive most valuable player in leading a 44-20 win over Nevada Las Vegas, entered the transfer portal and Maddux Madsen, who appeared in nine games, suffered a season-ending knee injury Nov. 11.

Tiller has not thrown a pass this season. But the Rancho Cucamonga High alumnus has a comfortable safety blanket in running back Ashton Jeanty, the Mountain West offensive player of the year. The sophomore has rushed for 1,262 yards and 14 touchdowns while catching five more touchdowns.

Tiller will face a depleted UCLA secondary that is without two starters and a backup safety in William Nimmo Jr., who entered the transfer portal. But when asked of the suddenly bare safety position, Kelly emphasized that the Bruins still had Churchwell, Alex Johnson and Jordan Anderson , all redshirt seniors. The coach balked at the suggestion that the bowl game would be an opportunity to let younger players shine as a preview for next season.

“Just let me clarify: There are no ‘extended looks.’ We’re trying to beat Boise,” Kelly said. “So if anybody in this football program can help us beat Boise, then they’ll be on the field. But this game is not a tryout to see what this kid could be like in the future.”

For at least a few more days, the future can wait for the Bruins. Despite fed-up fans calling for his job after another middle-of-the-pack season, Kelly will lead UCLA into the Big Ten next season. After the bowl game, coaches will tackle the early signing period that opens Wednesday. Potential transfers are taking tours of campus, and UCLA already has nabbed two defensive back commitments out of the portal from San Diego State’s Marcus Ratcliffe and Oregon’s Bryan Addison.

With another year of eligibility or the opportunity to chase the NFL, senior linebacker Kain Medrano said this week he hadn’t considered his future with the program. He’s more concerned about how to finish this era.

“I want to go out there and give my all for my brothers,” Medrano said, “because I think they deserve that.”

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