As the UCLA football team prepared for its season finale in the Rose Bowl at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Pac-12 foe California, coach Chip Kelly acknowledged the Bruins' seniors and what they have meant to his program.
“It’s a special group, there’s a bunch of them who have been here a while … you still have remnants of the COVID kids,” said Kelly, whose roster features 13 redshirt seniors and 21 seniors. “Alex Johnson and Kenny Churchwell are in Year 6 and some of these kids who got the extra year of eligibility have been the standard for this team. The work ethic they show up with every day, the attention to detail, how involved they are in the meetings, the training sessions, strength and conditions stuff, they’ve been fantastic. We have great group of senior leaders here.”
Senior inside linebacker Darius Muasau hopes to make his family proud in his final home game wearing the powder and blue.
“This is my last game in the Rose Bowl,” he said. “Right now it’s not really hitting me, but once I get on the field it’s going to mean a lot more to me. I really just want to win this game and not just me, but my fellow seniors. We’ve been through a lot together the last two years that I’ve been here. It’s also senior night so a good 20 or 30 family members from Hawaii are flying out to celebrate with me. I’ll be having Thanksgiving with them alongside family I have here in the Orange County area. But I don’t do the cooking … that’s all my parents."
Muasau was a standout at Mililani High in Honolulu and played three seasons at the University of Hawaii before transferring to UCLA.
“I came here looking to get out of my comfort zone,” Muasau said. “I’m a Hawaii boy, grew up there, been there my whole life, that’s all I pretty much knew, so coming out here was a great experience for me and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Muasau expects a big game Saturday from former Cal inside linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo, who made 17 tackles against the Bruins last season. The junior announced his commitment to UCLA on Twitter on the same day he entered the transfer portal in early December.
“Seeing him ball against us last year and now having him with us, it’s a great feeling to have him playing right next to me,” Muasau said. “It’s going to be a personal game for him going against his old team. You can tell his energy is different this week, he’s bringing a whole new vibe and aura to the team and he’s really excited to compete.”
Muasau and the defensive unit limited USC to three yards rushing in 22 attempts — the Trojans’ lowest rushing total since they finished with negative-five yards versus Texas in 2018.
“Holding an offense to three yards is really hard to do,” he said. “Whether its USC or anyone else it’s a really big accomplishment, wherever you are. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that being done anywhere, but we’re not done yet. There’s more work ahead of us and we look to get better.”
Center Duke Clemens admitted ringing the Victory Bell was a moment to savor.
“Yes, I did get to ring it,” Clemens said, a wide smile on his face. “Being my fifth and last year, getting that bell back for the Bruins felt really nice. So I was thrilled to be in that moment. I’m so proud of [quarterback] Ethan [Garbers]. He deserved to celebrate a little bit in the Coliseum. He had a chip on his shoulder hearing about his lack of mobility and all of that.”
As satisfying as it was to beat their crosstown rivals, Clemens and the Bruins must turn the page quickly and focus on closing out the regular season strong.
“A key is taking what we did last week and replicating it this week,” he said. “It starts with the intensity we bring to practice. We need to stay detailed and disciplined. If we do we should have the same outcome. It’s about us understanding all of their blitzing patterns in the front seven. They’re really big inside, so we have to stay in our double teams.”
Reflecting on his time at UCLA, Clemens said: “It’s gone by really fast. … Moving into the dorms, getting familiar with L.A. I’ve done a lot of growing and learning. I cherish every moment, especially now. I was able to have in-person classes this quarter, so getting to experience the campus life my last quarter here has been enjoyable.”
Heading into his last Pac-12 contest, how does he want to be remembered?
“As someone who was helpful and set a good example,” Clemens said. “Someone you could always count on to do and say the right thing and be the right leader for these guys… that’s one thing, for sure. And for the care I gave to my teammates.”
Running back Colson Yankoff believes his class has left a lasting legacy.
“What Coach Kelly has done here has been real positive in general, seeing how the program has progressed. The guys he’s brought in have created this cool culture. A group of guys that just love each other. There’s a [Buddhist] word ‘mudita’ we like to say, which means being genuinely happy for other people’s successes. We have a culture that embodies that here. It’s been really cool to be a part of and I hope that’ll stand the test of time and continue to trickle down.”
Johnson said he has not had much time to reflect on his career.
“The season’s gone by so fast for me and I’ve been taking things one day at a time. I wouldn’t go back and change anything — it’s been a great ride,” the safety said. “When I came here as a walk-on, I was just trying to figure out how to get to class and make sure I was on time for everything. Looking back I never would’ve guessed in a million years that things would work out this way.”
Defensive lineman Jay Toia, who had to be transported off the field on a cart after suffering an apparent right foot injury early in the second quarter of last Saturday’s 38-20 win over USC, did not practice with his position group Monday or Tuesday, but Kelly confirmed Wednesday “Jay’s good and he’s going to practice today.”
Toia did practice Wednesday, though his foot was heavily wrapped.
Backup quarterback Collin Schlee did not practice last week nor did he dress for the USC game, but the redshirt junior has participated at practice this week and was wearing a helmet cam Wednesday along with Garbers.
Kelly said there was a team Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday night. ... ... Defensive Coordinator D’Anton Lynn has been named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, which honors college football's top assistant coaches. Lynn took over for Bill McGovern, who died of cancer May 30. Lynn was the Baltimore Ravens’ safeties coach in 2022.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.