It took me a bit to walk out of the Rose Bowl.
Most of that had to do with needing a moment to sit and regroup after one of the biggest comebacks in NCAA history. The Bruins scored 35 unanswered points in the final 17 minutes of the game, which didn’t leave a lot of time for thinking. Those of us in the stands (and while you may believe there was an exodus after that first half, there was still a large amount of the home faithful) could only react to every insane twist and turn. It was impossible to process in the moment. Hell, I’m writing this more than 12 hours removed from the game, and I’m still having trouble processing what actually happened.
If I’m going to attempt any sort of recap here, then I have to lead with Josh Rosen. On an opening weekend where potential top picks Sam Darnold and Josh Allen struggled coming out of the gates, Rosen shined, throwing for 491 yards and 4 touchdowns. He did this despite being pressured on 49 percent of his dropbacks, a number that still somehow feels low to what I saw. And in that miraculous comeback, the Bruin offensive line provided enough protection for Josh Rosen to put on a show - in the fourth quarter alone, Rosen went 19/26 for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those are numbers most quarterbacks struggle to put up in an entire game, and Rosen did it in 15 minutes. If there was ever a game to point at when people question Josh Rosen’s ability, it would be this one.
Of course, Rosen and the Bruins were also lucky, a point that Josh was quick to point out in the postgame interviews. A touchdown pass to Darren Andrews went through the hands of Texas A&M DB Deshawn Capers-Smith. The touchdown pass to Theo Howard came on a broken play, on a pass that Rosen meant to throw out of the back of the end zone but, thanks to the hand of an Aggie defender hitting Rosen’s arm, instead fell into the lap of a falling Howard.
That luck extended to the coaching decisions of the Aggies. Kevin Sumlin was handed a 44-10 lead with 2:08 left in the third, and made every bad decision imaginable. They snapped the ball early in the play clock, and decided to pass the ball with a true freshman quarterback who had not even won a quarterback battle for the starting job, as starting QB Nick Starkel left the game with an ankle injury. Noel Mazzone did what he does best and abandoned a strategy that had worked extremely well for the first half of the game by ignoring the run game in the second half. That Aggie run game would end up with 382 yards, and we’re going to talk about that, but RBs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford touched the ball a grand total of 4 times in the final quarter. The Aggie defense, which had looked like world-beaters for the first half, suddenly wilted in the second, especially a vaunted secondary that returned a lot of talent.
For the record, the Aggie collapse would have made a strong case for the sideline move being a genius decision, except it was overcast the entire game, and even rained at one point, making the whole shift moot.
Rosen was not the only Bruin who stepped up late. Caleb Wilson had a coming out party, and similarly etched his name into Bruin lore. The former Trojan walk-on showed why the school from South Central had made a mistake by catching 15 passes for 208 yards, reminding everyone of the famous mantra of our own uclaluv that “The tight end is always open!” Darren Andrews was his usual, dependable self, adding in 12 catches for 142 yards. Jordan Lasley was his usual, brilliant self, making huge play after huge play, ending up with 4 catches for 100 yards and one last, brilliant touchdown pass. Soso Jamabo, the much-maligned blue-chip running back, came in during the second half and played brilliantly, picking up a touchdown and a crucial 4th down conversion on a screen pass on the final drive.
There are caveats to all of this praise, and that would be the first 40 minutes of this game. The Bruin offense looked awful for vast stretches, showing the same issues as last year. The run game still looks like a disaster, the offensive line is still a leaky mess, and Josh Rosen is going to be hit a lot because of it. The Bruin offense went over 25 minutes between 1st downs, which led to a sarcastic cheer from the crowd. These are all issues that, theoretically, could be fixed this season. I’m not going to doubt that it can happen, especially in the wake of a 34 point comeback, but these are not quick fixes.
I feel I should mention that I was prewriting this article in my head during that first half. There were a lot of expletives that would need editing.
If you’re wondering why it took this long to get to the defense, it’s because their performance was much worse. This unit is not lacking in talent, and Tom Bradley is a well-respected coordinator. And yet the Aggie offense was able to score 38 points in the first half. The defense almost refused to stop the run; if anything was emblematic of their performance, it would have been Trayveon Williams 61 yard touchdown run, which occurred on the first play after the Bruin offense had scored their first touchdown of the game. It took Tom Bradley 3 quarters to figure out that the nickel defense was letting A&M run at will, and that he has a pretty great secondary that probably didn’t need the extra help, but a weaker defensive line that absolutely did.
That last point actually bears repeating, because the A&M offense ended the day with only 89 passing yards. Part of that has to do with Nick Starkel, the passing quarterback, going down with injury and being replaced by Kellen Mond, the running quarterback, but Starkel wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire when he was out there. He ended the day 6/13 for 62 yards and a QBR of 42.3. Everyone thought going into this game that the gameplan would be to stack the box to stop the potent Aggie rushing attack and make an unproven quarterback beat them, but Tom Bradley instead did the complete opposite, and it almost cost the Bruins the game.
And again, the Bruin defense was aided by Noel Mazzone’s bizarre play-calling. Nursing a large lead, Mazzone abandoned the run game that had worked so well in favor of having a true freshman with questionable passing skills throw the ball 17 times. That’s the level of coaching malpractice that led for Bruin fans to call for his firing.
All of that said, there was still some good on that side of the ball. Darnay Holmes already looks like the shutdown corner UCLA hoped he would be when he signed, a late hit out of bounds not withstanding. Keisean Lucier-South had a coming out party, looking like the best Bruin lineman for long stretches of the game. Lokeni Toailoa came in once UCLA went back to its base defense and instantly made an impact, filling in gaps that had been left empty in the first half.
There’s no good place to put this, so let me just drop it here: UCLA’s in-game production still remains awful and tone-deaf. UCLA AD Dan Guerrero was presented with the NFF John L. Toner Award during the first half, complete with an accompanying explanation of how the award is given to an AD who displays excellence in managing their sports programs, “especially football.” That part got an audible laugh out of parts of the crowd, and Guerrero was booed during the ceremony. Beyond that, the sound crew would play radio audio on top of the PA announcer, all while music was also playing. In the third, an ad came out urging people to buy season tickets that was maybe one of the worst-timed ads I’ve ever seen. I went to Texas A&M last year, and their in-game production blew UCLA out of the water. At some point you’d think someone in the administration would be embarrassed enough to fix it, but that’s putting a lot of faith in an athletic director this oblivious.
The problem with this game, in a nutshell, is that the end result was so crazy, so improbable, that it makes any attempt at deciphering it impossible. The sequence of events that led to Josh Rosen collapsing to the ground from exhaustion after realizing that Kevin Sumlin would not extend the game with timeouts had to occur exactly the way they did, and any one deviation from those events likely leads to a Bruin loss. And a Bruin loss would have led to an easier set of takeaways: that the team was completely unprepared for what A&M wanted to do, that the offense, especially the running game, was still a mess even with Rosen’s return, that Jim Mora was now on the hottest of hot seats. The win immediately changes our perception of what happened; the comeback was so grand that you almost forget why it had to occur in the first place.
If there is a takeaway, it should be that this team will not quit. It would have been easy, understandable even, for them to quit after being down 38-10 at the half. It was admirable when they started showing signs of life, and even the most optimistic fan probably assumed the game was still over but at least they could build momentum for the next game. But winning this game changes the whole outlook on the season. Bruin fans went on a roller coaster of emotions, from believing the season would be nothing more than a redux of last year’s debacle, to believing anything is possible.
And the crazy thing is, both of those outcomes are still on the table! That’s just how unpredictable football is. Even after last year’s season-opening loss on the road to Texas A&M, there were a lot of positives to take away (the running game had 125 yards that game, if you’re wondering just how much of an outlier that game turned out to be) before the season took a nose dive. This game can be a catalyst for a great comeback season for Mora and the Bruins; the win could also mask some problems that the team overlooks to their peril.
There was a nice lady in our section who was very calmly explaining what was going on throughout the game to her small children. I mention this only because by the end of the game, she had dropped all attempts at conveying emotions with words, instead letting her screams of joy explain the situation.
As I walked out of the Rose Bowl to my car, I saw a Texas A&M fan sitting on the edge of one of the sand traps, staring into the distance, not saying a word. I understood exactly how this man was thinking, because there is a distinct possibility that, had I left at halftime, I would have seen a UCLA fan in the exact same spot. College football by its very nature tends to create these strong feelings in fans that you can’t find in professional sports. We live and die on how a group of 18-22 year olds do in a game that children play. The only difference is that, today, Bruin fans get to bask in the happiness that a win provides.
And the roller coaster continues on.