No. 18 UCLA can reach 10 wins for the first time since 2014 against Pitt, which seeks it best consecutive finishes since 2008-09, at the Sun Bowl on Friday in El Paso, Texas.
The Bruins (9-3) embarked on the closing weeks of the regular season in contention for their first Pac-12 championship since 1998 and a berth in the College Football Playoff, but they dropped decisions to Arizona and rival Southern California by a combined nine points.
Despite falling out of the title race, the Sun Bowl provides plenty of motivation for UCLA. It is the first postseason opportunity for the Bruins in the tenure of head coach Chip Kelly, after last year’s scheduled Holiday Bowl matchup with NC State was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.
“I’m very excited. Hopefully everything goes according to plan and this will be the first bowl game I play in,” center Duke Clemens said, adding the significance of earning a potential 10-3 final record. “It’s very important. As I know, that doesn’t happen a lot at UCLA. For this team to go get a 10th win would be awesome.”
UCLA has reached the 10-win threshold — the program record for most in a season — just nine times.
Whether the Bruins will pursue that landmark victory with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson remains unclear. Thompson-Robinson completed a shade less than 70 percent of his 358 pass attempts in the regular season for 2,883 yards with 25 touchdowns.
The dual-threat playmaker also ran for 631 yards with 11 rushing touchdowns, complementing the power-run game of back Zach Charbonnet. Both Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet have continued practicing with UCLA despite their uncertain status for the Sun Bowl.
“As of right now, it’s leaning more towards playing,” Thompson-Robinson said of his own status during a Dec. 16 media availability.
Pitt (8-4) heads to El Paso in pursuit of its best consecutive finishes since winning nine games in 2008 and 10 games the following season. The Panthers finished 11-3 a season ago with an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
The departure of Heisman Trophy-finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett and transfer of Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Jordan Addison led to a facelift for the Pitt offense, which leans on the rushing combination of running backs Vincent Davis, Rodney Hamond Jr. and Israel Abanikanda.
Abanikanda led the ACC with 1,431 rushing yards, but he is a definite scratch for the Sun Bowl after declaring for the NFL draft on Dec. 19. The Panthers defense will be without All-American defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, who made his postseason departure official with an announcement on Dec. 22.
“It’s a great thing. We wish those guys luck. They all have decisions to make,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We obviously wish they were playing, but that’s their decision. All I can do and all our staff can do is educate them on, hey, what we think, and they’ve got to make a decision (that is) best for them.
“Fifteen years ago,” Narduzzi added, “Guys would have given their left leg to play in a bowl game. I don’t think it’s the case anymore.”
Among the personnel questions for Pitt going into the Sun Bowl is quarterback. Kedon Slovis, who started much of the regular season, transferred. Nick Patti played in last season’s Peach Bowl in place of the exiting Pickett but broke his collarbone in the first quarter.
Patti announced his intention to transfer for the 2023 season but is competing with Nate Yarnell for the starting spot in the Sun Bowl.
–Field Level Media