The Bruins aren't playing any complex math games heading into Saturday night.
No. 13 UCLA football (2-0) will host Fresno State (2-1) at the Rose Bowl, fresh off two wins and a bye week to open the season. The Bulldogs haven't taken a Saturday off yet, and along with posting blowout victories over UConn and Cal Poly, they also only lost by a touchdown to No. 4 Oregon.
The Ducks went on to defeat then-No. 3 Ohio State on the road just one week later, meaning both the Bulldogs and Buckeyes lost to Oregon by seven points.
But instead of looking at Fresno State as an Ohio State equivalent, coach Chip Kelly said he's just preparing for what the Bulldogs are on the field – a solid, well-coached opponent.
"I don't care about who won by what, who did what, the transitive process of this game was close, that game equals that thing – we don't talk about that," Kelly said. "Regardless of they won at Oregon or didn't win at Oregon or whatever that is, (Fresno State) is a really good football team. So we don't sit in our meetings and say this score was closer in this game, this team went and beat that team, so that means that this team is that – that's way too complicated for us."
This marks the first game in 2021 for which Kelly and his staff have 2021 tape to watch in their film sessions. UCLA and Hawaii both started their seasons Week 0 against each other, and LSU was playing its season opener when the Bruins hosted them in Week 1. In addition to playing three games already, Fresno State also returns both of its coordinators from a year ago, unlike the Rainbow Warriors or Tigers.
One game the Bruins' staff won't be drawing too many conclusions from – despite Kalen DeBoer still being the man in charge up north – is the last time UCLA and Fresno State faced off. The Bulldogs beat down the Bruins 38-14 in 2018 to cap off Kelly's winless first nonconference slate in Westwood.
This time around, UCLA is undefeated in nonconference play and has a senior starting at quarterback instead of a freshman.
That freshman signal-caller is now the senior signal-caller, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson enters the rematch as the Pac-12 passer rating leader with 27 appearances under his belt rather than a fresh face making his first collegiate home start. Thompson-Robinson posted the worst passer rating and completion percentage of his Rose Bowl career in that 2018 game, and he said Monday he is ready to put it behind him.
"Obviously, just going back from what I remember a little bit, I didn't play well that game," Thompson-Robinson said. "But it's a new team, it's a new season, so we're excited for the task at hand."
Thompson-Robinson's counterpart on the other side is quarterback Jake Haener.
Haener has already passed for 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception this season, and his 195.8 passer rating ranks inside the top 10 in the country. The former Washington transfer has completed 67.3% of his attempts for his career and has rushed for six touchdowns in his last seven starts.
"He’s a really, really good football player," Kelly said. "He’s dynamic, he’s got a knack for keeping plays alive and I think he’s got a great knowledge of Kalen’s system in terms of what they ask him to do and he’s just a productive football player. We’re going to have our hands full containing him but he’s one of those guys – he reminds me a lot of Russell Wilson when he takes off, I mean he’s taking off looking for touchdowns."
Haener's top offensive weapons are receivers Keric Wheatfall, Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly. Fresno State's running backs are accumulating 108 rushing yards per game, which fails to even approach the 231.5 per game put up by Zach Charbonnet, Brittain Brown and co.
The Bulldogs did still manage to bring back two of their three All-Mountain West honorees from last season, as well as all seven of its honorable mentions.
Two other Fresno State players set to suit up Saturday night are pretty familiar with UCLA themselves, considering both started their collegiate careers in Westwood – right tackle Alex Akingbulu and defensive back Elijah Gates.
Akingbulu transferred out of UCLA in 2018 following Kelly's first spring camp with the program, while Gates was still getting snaps with the Bruins as recently as 2020.
"Alex is a big, physical offensive lineman that we're gonna have to have our hands full cause he's tough, strong at the point of attack," Kelly said. "And Elijah played a lot of football for us in the secondary. Love Elijah, he's really done a nice job fitting in there. ... So both those guys, we have a lot of respect for."
Gates has moved from corner to safety since joining the Bulldogs, which Kelly said helps them take advantage of his ability to cover the entire field.
Another player with some top end speed can conversely give UCLA an inside look at Fresno State, considering his background. Unlike most of his teammates, who have really only played with Gates, running back/receiver Kazmeir Allen grew up right in the Bulldogs' footprint in the Tulare and Visalia area.
Not only does that give Allen a certain familiarity with the Fresno State fanbase, but a good chunk of the players on their roster as well.
"There’s probably going to be a lot of Fresno fans there, a very loyal program. It’s going to be a lot of energy, for sure," Allen said. "I talked to a few of them last week, it’s all been jokes, but at the same time, we’re trying to win, so I mean, it is what it is."
Kelly, Thompson-Robsinson and Allen will have a chance to avenge their 2018 home loss to the Bulldogs on Saturday night at 7:45 p.m.