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UCLA breaks even over the Buffaloes

UCLA and Colorado battle to a near-literal draw, but the Bruins do just enough to make fewer mistakes to pull out a crucial 27-23 win.

NCAA Football: Colorado at UCLA
Darren Andrews had yet another fine game for the UCLA offense.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

What a strange game.

UCLA and Colorado have played their share of close and occasionally very dumb football games in recent memory, and the Bruins’ 27-23 victory on Saturday night proved no different.

UCLA and Colorado battled to a dead-even draw. Just check out the left column of this box score (click to zoom in).

UCLA and Colorado were close to mirror images of each other on Saturday.

(h/t to the esteemed Bill Connelly for his advanced box scores on Football Study Hall)

Colorado had 11 possessions, ran 84 plays for 436 yards, an average of 5.19 yards per play. The Buffaloes ran 7.6 yards per play and gained 29.6 yards per possession. Meanwhile, UCLA also had 11 possessions and ran 82 plays for 437 yards, averaging 5.32 yards per play, a whopping .13 yards more than their opponents. Per possession, UCLA gained a measly .1 yard more than Colorado.

So in a game that was balanced on a knife’s edge, the Bruins won simply by cutting themselves just a little bit less than Colorado did, even if the Bruins committed more penalties (9) than the Buffaloes (6).

It was refreshing to see another team besides UCLA make costly mistakes that ultimately did them in in the end.

For a second consecutive week, UCLA’s offense never really reached the heights that it did in the Hawaii and Memphis games. Josh Rosen was fine, finishing 28/45 for 372 yards and a touchdown, a line that’d look a lot prettier had he not fallen victim to a few drops by Jordan Lasley and Theo Howard. Lasley rebounded from those drops to deliver a huge game, finishing with 7 catches for 146 yards and looking mostly unguardable. He and Andrews are a potent 1-2 punch on the perimeter, and with Caleb Wilson now out for the year after injuring his foot, they’ll be relied on more than ever.

But Rosen also threw another boneheaded interception. In the third quarter, as he sought out Darren Andrews deep down the sideline, he underthrew the pass, which allowed the undercutting safety Evan Worthington to swoop in for the pick. Even if he threw it well, Rosen clearly didn’t see Worthington breaking from his single-high position, which compounded the mistake.

Meanwhile, UCLA committed itself to a running game that sputtered and wheezed. Soso Jamabo took the reigns as lead tailback again, but he struggled and gained just 70 yards on 21 carries. In particular, he looked tentative in cutting up the field on stretch plays, and his tendency to dance side to side left yards on the field for the offense. But he also gained 7 yards on a huge 3rd down and 6 late that helped UCLA kick the game-sealing field goal. Jalen Starks was also money on short-yardage situations as he’s been all season long. While the Bruins don’t run for a lot of yards, they’re becoming more and more reliable to get yards when they need them most.

In all, UCLA gained just 104 yards on 35 carries, a meager 2.7 yards per carry that fell in line with last year’s running game. Unlike 2016 however, UCLA’s commitment to run kept Colorado just honest enough for Josh Rosen to make just enough plays to win a game by just enough.

UCLA’s defense, meanwhile, turned in a solid performance, which is a marked improvement from the previous games against Stanford and Memphis. But it wasn’t without its mistakes.

For the 4th straight game, UCLA lost a defender to a targeting penalty. This time, Darnay Holmes committed a by-the-book penalty early in the first quarter. His replacement, Denzel Fisher, ended up being flagged three times for holding, including on a critical third down as Colorado bore down on the UCLA end zone.

UCLA was also bamboozled time and time again by quarterback Steven Montez keeping the ball on zone reads. Montez finished with 115 yards, and he had room to run on the edges on numerous 3rd and 4th downs after watching UCLA crash down to stop the run.

However, UCLA got better on defense through the play of Kenny Young. After suffering a concussion against Hawaii and struggling against Stanford, Young flew all over the field on Saturday, collecting 10.5 tackles, including a game-saving tackle of Montez on 3rd down late in the game. Young played fast and was clearly spending less time thinking and more time reacting. It was great to see him play at a high level again.

UCLA also got big-time play from Chigozie Nnoruka, who got the nod at nose tackle. Nnoruka whipped the Colorado interior line time and time and time again and flushed Montez out of the pocket. While UCLA struggled to finish sacks, it was encouraging to see interior pressure come consistently, and Nnoruka looks primed to break out in a big way going forward.

UCLA was also bailed out by Colorado’s refusal to use Phillip Lindsay more often. Lindsay, ever dynamic out of the backfield, only rushed 19 times and caught just 4 passes. Using one of the Pac-12’s best running backs only 23 times is a sin to all football fans. UCLA was also bailed out by numerous drops by Colorado wide receivers, including two in the end zone that left the Buffs to settle for two field goals instead of two touchdowns.

And in a 4 point margin, it’s safe to say Colorado could have used those extra 6 or 8 points.

Colorado also could have also used 3 extra points that they left on the field close to halftime. After a drive stalled at the 11 yard line, Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre elected to try a fake field goal. It failed spectaculary, Kenny Young diagnosed the fake immediately and crushed the holder, and UCLA wound up going into halftime up 14-10 instead of 14-13.

Combined with the whiffed fake, Colorado’s red zone profligacy - the Buffs settled for 3 field goals - bit them in the end. Colorado had a touchdown run called back for a hold, and they had the previously mentioned two end zone drops.

But after UCLA sat on the ball for 6 minutes to kick a field goal with 26 seconds left to lead 27-23, the Buffaloes had no timeouts to go 74 yards. They got halfway there - Montez ended up missing on a Hail Mary from the UCLA 37 yard line - but if they were down just 1 instead of 4, a 55 yard field goal for the win would have been more feasible than a desperate Hail Mary. (Let’s not forget that UCLA should have iced the game without the field goal had they snapped the ball later in the play clock more often than they did.) Mike MacIntyre has done a remarkable job rebuilding Colorado into a contending Pac-12 program, but he biffed it Saturday.

Jim Mora won’t care. While his team wasn’t perfect, it did just enough to notch a crucial Pac-12 win and head into the bye week above .500. UCLA’s season has mostly been one long exercise in dumb bounces and luck, so UCLA got them their way this time on Saturday.

UCLA can rest up and heal in advance of a trip to Arizona in two weeks. Mora has never lost to Arizona, but currently, it’s projected as a toss-up game, with the early edge going to Arizona by literally 0.2 points. It’s a must-win for UCLA’s bowl prospects as the schedule gets brutal with Oregon, Washington and Utah to follow.

UCLA may never be able to get out of its own way, but it proved Saturday that it can do just enough. Now the trick becomes turning “just enough” into “more than plenty” to make this season a winning one.