EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Pittsburgh quarterback Nick Patti once again steps in for a bowl game after the guy ahead of him on the depth chart didn't stick around.
For UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Sun Bowl will be his first postseason experience after appearing in 45 games over the senior's five seasons.
“For all those guys, they've given so much to the university,” said Bruins coach Chip Kelly, making his first bowl appearance in five years on the job. “It's our job as coaches and players that are returning to send them out on the right note.”
Patti is expected to start Friday after Kedon Slovis transferred to BYU. The same thing happened last season, on the bigger stage of the Peach Bowl, after Kenny Pickett declared for the NFL draft.
A broken collarbone ended that experience after two series for Patti as the Panthers lost to Michigan State 31-21. He gets another chance against No. 18 UCLA (9-3), which is near the bottom nationally in pass defense.
“I think getting that experience last year was great,” said Patti, ahead of his first start of the season. “I was ready for the game, obviously got hurt, but I’m ready to come back and show out this game.”
Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet, the national leader in all-purpose yards at 168 per game, power the nation's No. 3 offense, averaging 508 yards per outing.
Pittsburgh (8-4) has a top 20 defense and is seventh nationally against the run, while UCLA has rushed for at least 200 yards in its past five games and nine overall this season.
“That’s the challenge,” said Kelly, whose team withdrew from the Holiday Bowl last season because of COVID-19 issues. “They’re always one of the top defenses in college football. They’re sound. They’re aggressive. That’s a big matchup for us.”
Panthers running back Israel Abanikanda, who rushed for 1,431 yards and led FBS with 21 total touchdowns entering bowl season, opted out of the game.
So did offensive linemen Gabe Houy and Warren Carter, defensive end Deslin Alexandre and linebacker Dennis Sirvocea. All are preparing for the NFL draft.
“You just use the 12 games that they’ve played so far,” said Kelly, seeking his first 10-win season at UCLA. “You’re not making things up and dreaming what you think they can do. It’s based on what they’ve done in the past.”
THANKS FOR THE RIDE
Pitt players Samuel Okunlola, Jake Frantl and Hudson Primus were stranded in Dallas on Christmas Day because of canceled flights when UTEP basketball coach Joe Golding reasoned from their Pitt gear they might be trying to get to El Paso.
Golding and his family had the same problem, so he offered to take the players with him when the Goldings rented a car for the roughly 600-mile drive to West Texas. The rental car company had an SUV big enough for Golding, his wife, their two sons and the Pitt players.
Golding told an El Paso media outlet he called Pat Narduzzi to make sure the Pitt coach was OK with it. Narduzzi started one of his sessions with reporters with a shoutout to Golding as an example of well-known Sun Bowl hospitality. An overnight drive got the players there in time for practice.
“Out here in West Texas, that’s what we do,” Golding said. “I would hope someone would do that to (sons) Cason and Chase if they were stranded somewhere on Christmas night.”
Kelly was the offensive coordinator for Oregon when the Ducks blew out South Florida 56-21 in the 2007 Sun Bowl. Two years later, he started a four-year run as head coach that included a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the 2010 BCS championship game, a split of two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl victory.
“Winning,” Kelly said of his favorite part of his previous trip to El Paso. “I think that's the favorite part of every bowl game. I think that's the reason you go to a bowl game.”
Patti was taking his redshirt year in 2018 when Pitt lost to Stanford 14-13 in the Sun Bowl. The Panthers are 2-2 in the Sun Bowl, while the Bruins are 3-1. It's the first meeting between the schools in 50 years and the first in a bowl.
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