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UCLA football hopes to send seniors off on high note in game against Pittsburgh

Redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson warms up before a game against California. Thompson-Robinson is set to start Friday as No. 18 UCLA football takes on Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl. (Anika Chakrabarti/Photo editor)

Football


Pittsburgh
Friday, 11 a.m.

El Paso, Texas
CBS

By Francis Moon

Dec. 28, 2022 3:04 p.m.

Around the country, many players have chosen to opt out of bowl games to avoid risking injury and focus on the 2023 NFL Draft or the transfer portal.

But for No. 18 UCLA football (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12), playing Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3 ACC) in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on Friday gives the blue and gold its first chance to tie a school record of 10 wins since doing so in back-to-back seasons in 2013 and 2014. This wasn’t going to be an opportunity that any of its key players, including redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, were going to miss.

“We can get to 10 wins, something that I’ve really wanted to do since I’ve gotten here,” Thompson-Robinson said. “That’s been on my mind heavy, as well as just finishing out with the boys that I came here with.”

For much of the season, it looked as if the Bruins could reach that mark and then some. UCLA played its way into the College Football Playoff conversation until an upset loss to unranked Arizona on Nov. 12 derailed those hopes, while defeats at the hands of Oregon and USC took higher-profile bowl games such as the Rose Bowl and Alamo Bowl out of the question.

Though the Bruins earned a selection to the Holiday Bowl last season, a last-minute cancellation due to COVID-19 delayed the first bowl appearance of the coach Chip Kelly era. With an abundance of players likely finishing their final year in Westwood, none have officially opted out of the game two days out from the matchup.

“They love playing with each other, that’s part of what it’s all about,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a really tightknit group. They play for each other. It’s an opportunity for them to finish off what has been a really good year.”

Thompson-Robinson added that this being his last collegiate season has factored into his decision to don the blue and gold one more time. The fifth-year quarterback ranks among the top of several career leaderboards in school history, including total offense and touchdowns, but has yet to play in a bowl game with the Bruins.

“I knew going into this time last year, if I was to make the decision to come back, then this was going to be the last hurrah. And I was going to have to soak up everything that comes with it,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Now that it’s finally here, it’s bittersweet.”

Senior running back Zach Charbonnet, who ranks fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game, also made the trip to El Paso. He is expected to suit up despite being the highest rated NFL Draft prospect on the team, as is redshirt junior wide receiver Kazmeir Allen, who declared for the draft last week.

The Panthers, on the other hand, will look very different from the regular season, with a handful of their starters officially choosing to forego the contest.

Key players missing from the field for Pitt will include quarterback Kedon Slovis – who had a couple big games against UCLA during his time with USC and recently transferred to BYU – along with running back Israel Abanikanda and defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, who are among at least six Panthers who will skip the game after declaring for the NFL Draft.

Senior offensive lineman Jon Gaines II, who will also attempt to go pro next year, said despite the unknown nature of who will be lining up against the Bruins, the team is preparing for whatever may be thrown at it given the Panthers’ depth and experience.

“I think the biggest strength of Pitt is that they have a lot of positional versatility,” Gaines said. “Regardless of the opt-outs, they have a wealth of experience. A lot of people have played a lot of snaps, so they’re going to come out just as tough as they were before.”

Defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, who shared one year with Panthers offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. while coaching the New York Giants, will rejoin the Bruins on the field for the first time since Oct. 22. McGovern added that their opponent is unlike any they’ve faced so far this year on the offensive end.

“They’re well coached, they’re tough, they’re physical, but they also got skill that goes down the field,” McGovern said. “They’re a physical team in terms of running the ball, but they’re also a team that’s very talented throwing the ball.”

After losing to Michigan State in the Peach Bowl last season, Pitt has just one win in its last six bowl games since 2014 while UCLA has gone 1-2 in its bowl games in that span. Though they reached eight wins for a second straight season, the Panthers beat one ranked team – against then-No. 20 Syracuse on Nov. 5 – in three tries this year and finished the season outside of the AP Top 25.

Additionally, the two teams will be on the same field for the first time since 1972, with the Bruins holding a 9-5 advantage in the all-time series.

Though some teams use bowl games as a chance to showcase their players who haven’t seen the field as much, Kelly said the Bruins are laser focused on grabbing win No. 10 and sending off their seniors on a high note.

“They’ve given so much to this university,” Kelly said. “It’s our job as players and coaches that are returning to send them out on the right note.”

The 89th edition of the second-oldest bowl game in the nation will kick off at 11 a.m. on Friday.

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Francis Moon | Sports senior staff
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
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