To college football, it’s the game’s most unique rivalry.
To Joshua Kelley, it’s the most unique personal highlight reel imaginable.
UCLA and No. 23 USC meet for the 91st time Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the renewal of college football’s only crosstown rivalry. The two campuses are 12 miles apart.
The conversation would have involved light years to describe the odds of an obscure former walk-on setting an all-time rushing record in a game that has included nearly a dozen Heisman Trophy winners and national champions.
Yet that’s exactly what Kelley, a graduate of Eastside High who got to Westwood via UC Davis, did with 289 yards in UCLA’s upset victory a year ago this weekend.
“That was a great memory,” Kelley was saying before practice on Wednesday, his 22nd birthday. “What a great feeling.
“I’m feeling about the best I have all season this week, too.”
Kelley posted the eighth-greatest rushing season in Bruins history with 1,243 yards in 2018.
The highlight was the 55-yard touchdown burst in the fourth quarter to put the Bruins ahead of USC.
And notwithstanding a training camp knee injury that lingered longer than anyone expected, Jacqueline Kelley’s son is second in the Pac-12 Conference with 939 yards rushing.
He’s within reach of joining Paul Perkins (2014) and DeShaun Foster (2001) as the only Bruins to lead the conference in rushing in the last 25 years.
He’s also poised to become just the eighth running back in UCLA history to post consecutive thousand-yard rushing seasons.
“Things happen to you in camp,” Kelley said. “Things happen to you in football. You just have to keep trying and working hard.”
That is the definition of Joshua Kelley.
When the coach who recruited him at UC Davis was fired, Kelley also found himself a free agent.
He always loved UCLA, which he never missed the chance to express to the Bruins running backs coach — Foster.
He was allowed to walk on. Then Jim Mora left as head coach.
“I know football defines me, because I put so much time into it,” Kelley said. “But my faith is what I’m really about. Even with the setbacks, my faith is stronger after three years at UCLA than it was before I got here.
“I would have never gotten here if God hadn’t put people into my life to help me, and to open doors for me.
Like, coach Chip Kelly.
Joshua’s mother served as his workout partner and a willing defender to try out his pass receiving routes and rushing moves on.
“I can never thank my mom enough for what she did for me,” Kelley said. “I know that was a proud day at the Rose Bowl vs. USC last year.
“I hope I can give her another one on Saturday.”