Signs of 'disunity' are among five things to watch for when UCLA faces Arizona State

Pasadena, CA - UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly watches his team warm up before a Pac-12 Conference game against the Washington State Cougars at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. Bruins won, 25 -17. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches his team warm up before the game against Washington State on Oct. 7. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Seventeen seconds into an interview, the usual everything-is-fine, we-will-get-this-fixed player pablum was abandoned Monday when UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo revealed a rift between the Bruins’ offense and defense.

“I think slowly by slowly,” Oladejo said Monday, referring to the team’s 27-10 loss to Arizona last weekend, “we just started to kind of get disunified.”

It wasn’t a slip-up; Oladejo went on to repeat the theme multiple times while acknowledging that the Bruins’ struggling offense was irritating their better half.

Confirmation came a day later when edge rusher Jake Heimlicher said basically the same thing.

“We need to come together as a group, give a full team effort in order to win football games,” Heimlicher said. “It’s not one side or the other, we can’t be divisive, it takes a whole unit to win.”

Coach Chip Kelly suggested his players’ comments were based on the framing of reporters’ questions, which was an interesting perspective if he listened to the interviews.

Read more: Eager to serve, retired Marine Capt. Bryce McDonald continues a legacy at UCLA

The question that prompted Oladeo’s quote: When you looked at the film, did your impressions about the defense from the game change?

The question that prompted Heimlicher’s quote: What did you learn from the tough loss?

Neither player was exactly baited.

After falling out of the national rankings, UCLA clearly has some issues to resolve. Here are five things to watch when the Bruins (6-3 overall, 3-3 Pac-12) face Arizona State (2-7, 1-5) on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl.

So about that disunity

UCLA players come together on the field
UCLA players celebrate an interception by UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo (2) during a game on Oct. 7 against Washington State. (Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

To their credit, Oladejo and Heimlicher showed courage in not only acknowledging the rift but also offering suggestions for how to fix it.

Said Oladejo: “Just positive self-talk, just staying confident with each other, lifting each other up, using words and encouraging your teammates.”

Said Heimlicher: “It’s about bringing the energy in practice every single day, it’s about moving forward every single day and not taking any days off.… Monday through Friday in practice is how we’re going to come together and win this game on Saturday.”

Read more: 'We just started to kind of get disunified': UCLA's offensive woes led to rift

Defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn showed his players a video about the Baltimore Ravens pulling together amid the legal brouhaha surrounding linebacker Ray Lewis during the team’s 2000 season that ended with a Super Bowl championship.

Will any of that work? Body language will be something to watch closely on the sideline Saturday after anything goes wrong.

This again?

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers lies facedown on the field.
UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers lies on the field after an injury against Arizona last week. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

UCLA fans are back to wondering who will be the starting quarterback.

Ethan Garbers started the season opener, lost the job to Dante Moore and regained it after Moore struggled over the first three conference games.

Both quarterbacks left the game against Arizona in the fourth quarter with injuries. Both also returned to practice this week, but Moore seemed much further ahead in his recovery by midweek given that Garbers moved awkwardly with a heavy wrap around his right foot.

Read more: Two UCLA quarterbacks were injured as the Bruins unraveled during a loss at Arizona

Center Duke Clemens said at least one of the quarterbacks was expected to play against Arizona State. The only sure thing is that Collin Schlee will get his share of time as the running quarterback mixed in to challenge the Sun Devils defense.

Wounded Sun Devils

Arizona State’s injury situation might be among the worst in the country.

The Sun Devils are expected to be down 14 players this week, including 11 starters. Five offensive linemen are likely to miss the game as well as quarterbacks Drew Pyne and Jaden Rashada. A sixth offensive lineman is questionable and a seventh recently announced his intention to sit out the rest of the season and transfer.

Third-string quarterback Trenton Bourguet departed Arizona State’s 55-3 loss to Utah last weekend with an injury, though he did return to practice this week. If Bourguet is unable to play, the team would probably go with fourth-stringer Jacob Conover.

Kelly said the Bruins would prepare for every possible quarterback in addition to coach Kenny Dillingham’s unconventional offense.

“They’re going to give you a lot of exotic looks, they’re going to attack you in all sorts of different ways,” Kelly said. “They run speed sweeps, they run unbalanced formations, they’re going to give you a lot of different things to make you kind of be off base a little bit.”

Special help, please

Colorado's Rodrick Ward holds his arms up on his sides while UCLA's R.J. Lopez stands nearby.
Colorado safety Rodrick Ward, left, celebrates after UCLA place-kicker R.J. Lopez, right, missed a field goal during their game Oct. 28. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

UCLA changed kickers last week and it made no difference.

Blake Glessner missed two of his three field-goal attempts against Arizona, continuing his team’s pattern of inaccuracy. Predecessor R.J. Lopez had missed five of his last eight attempts before Kelly reopened the competition in practice, switching to Glessner.

For the season, UCLA has made seven of 14 field goals, bearing no resemblance to the days when the Bruins’ kicking game was something nobody worried about thanks to Norm Johnson, John Lee, Justin Medlock, Chris Sailer, Ka’imi Fairbairn and Kai Forbath.

In six seasons, Kelly has not landed a scholarship kicker out of high school, though he said he brought some he wanted to camps before they chose to go elsewhere.

Read more: UCLA vs. Arizona State: This rivalry has been more fours up than forks up

“We’ve offered kids,” Kelly said. “If they don’t come here, that’s their decision.”

On the other hand …

UCLA defensive lineman Gabriel Murphy pursues Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders.
UCLA defensive lineman Gabriel Murphy pursues Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders for a sack in their game Oct. 28. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA’s defense has been so good that it’s almost become an afterthought.

How good? The Bruins are on pace to post their best season in school history for rushing yards allowed per game (70.4) and sacks per game (3.8). Giving up just 16.3 points per game puts them on track for their best mark since they allowed 15.8 in 1991.

Surrendering 294.3 yards per game leaves UCLA on pace for its best season in that category since giving up 273.8 in 1988.

All those figures could improve Saturday considering that Arizona State managed just 83 yards of offense last weekend against Utah.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.