WHO: Kansas State (7-5) vs. UCLA (6-6)
WHAT: The 4th Cactus Bowl
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona
THE SKINNY: Kansas State and UCLA are no strangers to playing each other in the postseason — they met just three seasons ago in the Alamo Bowl — but the situation around this year’s meeting could not be further from the last time they played.
While that meeting in San Antonio was marked by an ugly ending that saw a near fight and an angry handshake between head coaches, both programs still appeared to be on solid footing and aiming higher in the future after two pretty good campaigns. In sharp contrast, this game in Phoenix sees both sides limping along to the finish line of a season that had a few notable moments but was otherwise marred by misery, injuries and dysfunction.
Not that UCLA fans are complaining, however, as their .500 season was the impetus for the program to part ways with Jim Mora and make the biggest hire of the coaching carousel in landing Chip Kelly.
Kelly, however, won’t be leading the team onto the baseball field-turned-gridiron the day after Christmas. That would be interim coach Jeff Fisch, who did a good job getting his team bowl eligible in the first place directing the No. 5 passing offense in the country but still is leading a rag-tag group of coaches who are short-staffed and likely looking at other opportunities after the game.
What shouldn’t be lost on the UCLA faithful, however, is that this is almost assuredly the final game of Josh Rosen’s career in powder blues. The likely first-round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft has had a rocky tenure in Westwood due to injuries but a month full of rest before the game will allow him to leave one last impression for scouts against a pretty solid defense that has seen their fair share of good passers this season.
While Rosen is hoping to end the year on a high note, the Wildcats are hoping to keep their late surge going and do the same. The team was dreadful in the middle of the year as injuries hit at several key positions but third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson has proven to be the clutch play-maker Kansas State needed to turn around their season and has powered Bill Snyder’s club to four wins in their last five games. He forms quite the combo with running back Alex Barnes and wideout Byron Pringle, each of whom might not look like much getting off the bus but will easily take it to the house quickly if you don’t contain them early and often.
They could be doing quite a bit of that on Tuesday night. Even with Rosen back under center and making big plays, the Bruins have been unfocused this year. With all that is going on with coaches coming in and out, it remains to be seen if they can pull it all together and get the team’s only win on the road all season long. Perhaps more importantly, UCLA ranks second to last in the FBS in rushing defense while KSU averages 187 yards a game in one of the bigger statistical mismatches of the postseason.
The Kelly era can’t start soon enough for one team and something says that the old white and purple windbreaker on the other sideline ensures that happens quickly and politely out in the desert.
THE PICK: Kansas State 31, UCLA 24