Colorado, UCLA finding stride led by WR Shenault, RB Kelley
Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. for the Buffaloes and running back Joshua Kelley for the Bruins are hitting their stride. They're coming off their best performances of the season ahead of the matchup on Saturday.
Shenault injured a core muscle at the start of conference play against Arizona State on Sept. 21, but finally looked like himself with nine receptions for 172 yards against Southern California on Friday. However, Colorado (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) gave up two long touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and lost 35-31 to the Trojans.
Shenault's presence was enough to energize an offense that had scored just 13 points combined in Colorado's previous two games. He delivered the standout play against USC by catching a slant in full stride and turning upfield for a 71-yard touchdown reception, with 67 yards coming after the catch.
"When Laviska gets the ball in his hands, I want him to stay on his feet as long as he possibly can because there's a really big chance that he can break one for us and go to the house," Colorado quarterback Steven Montez said.
Bruins coach Chip Kelly said his defense needs to be aware of the 6-foot-2, 220 pound Shenault and try to keep him in check. But a heavy slate of carries for Kelley might be effective in limiting Shenault by keeping him on the sideline.
UCLA (3-5, 3-2) has won consecutive games for the second time in Kelly's two seasons on the strength of a resurgent running game built around the transfer from UC Davis. Kelley, who sustained a knee injury in the preseason, rushed for 176 yards and one touchdown at Stanford and followed it up with 34 carries for 164 yards and four touchdowns against the Sun Devils.
Kelley's ability to handle a big workload allowed the Bruins to hold the ball for 38:30 in the 42-32 win over Arizona State.
"We practice situations, you know," UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said. "The four-minute drill and kind of holding the ball for a long time is one of those situations we practice, so when you over-harp something you kind of get good at it. That's kind of Coach Kelly's motto and how he handles things."
Kelley rushed for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns as a redshirt junior last season. Colorado coach Mel Tucker said the continuity he provides has driven the recent improvement of UCLA's ground game.
"They have really found their stride and have figured out what they can do well," Tucker said.
Here are more things to know when the Buffaloes face the Bruins:
There are two teams in the Pac-12 South that can guarantee themselves a spot in the conference title game by winning out, and No. 9 Utah is not among them. UCLA would represent the South for the third time since the conference adopted divisions in 2011 if it can defeat Colorado, the Utes, rival USC — the other team that can control its own path — and California. It didn't seem remotely plausible when the Bruins started the season 1-5, but that doesn't matter to Kelly. "Every season expresses itself in a different manner," Kelly said. "We do have a lot of younger players playing."
?STILL ALIVE, PART 2
Colorado is playing for its own postseason aspirations, which are far more modest than the opportunity to win the Pac-12 and a bid to the Rose Bowl. Still, Tucker believes reaching a bowl of any kind in his first season would be a valuable step forward for the development of the program. "Extra practices are huge," Tucker said. "That is a big part of the bowl experience. It is like getting another spring ball. That is really positive."
GOOD TO GO
Thompson-Robinson will start against the Buffaloes after the sophomore sustained a knee injury against Arizona State on a scramble early in the fourth quarter that forced him out of the game. The sophomore hasn't put up big numbers in the Bruins' consecutive wins, throwing for 368 yards and four touchdowns against one interception, but Thompson-Robinson has kept the offense on schedule. UCLA scored touchdowns on all nine trips into the red zone against the Cardinal and Sun Devils and was 14 for 30 on third down.
Safety Mikial Onu didn't take long to make an impact after joining Colorado as a graduate transfer from SMU, ranking second on the team with 49 tackles. Onu has a chance to match the school single-season record of nine takeaways created, with four interceptions and two forced fumbles that the Buffaloes recovered through eight games. Onu had his third forced fumble against the Trojans, but it didn't result in a change of possession.
The Buffaloes are 4-10 all-time against the Bruins, including a 2-6 mark since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. UCLA has won all four meetings at the venerable Rose Bowl as conference foes, but the past two games were each decided by four points.