Coming into Saturday, the mood in the UCLA fan base was grumpier than ever.
Fans were unhappy with another floundering season. The team just got waxed by three scores in Salt Lake City. Displeasure with Jim Mora continued to grow, and the possibility of finishing 4-8 and firing him seemed as real as ever. And it is not like the basketball team, which started its season in Shanghai on Friday, was providing any respite last week either.
In what is becoming fan tradition in Westwood, some took to the skies to voice their anger. Steve Alford can no longer claim to be the only victim of banner anger now.
So one can imagine the angst felt in the Rose Bowl after UCLA found itself down 14-0 in the first quarter after missing a field goal, watching Josh Rosen be intercepted on another dropped pass and watching the defense give up 100 yards on 20 carries to the Sun Devils. It was bad, and the season looked to be careening off the cliff fast.
But as it has done at home all year, UCLA punched back, and this time, it may have saved the season. After a Marcus Moore deflection, Nate Meadors returned an interception for a touchdown at the end of the first quarter, and UCLA went on to control the game to the end for a 44-37 victory on Saturday. The win puts the Bruins at 5-5 and in need of just one win in Los Angeles against USC or Cal to go to a bowl game and save Jim Mora’s job.
After a rough first quarter, Josh Rosen was superb, even if the stats are misleading. He finished 25-45 for 381 yards, but he was hurt by at least 6 dropped passes. In the second half alone, Rosen was 12-13 and kept the offense humming. He even ran in a touchdown after being socked in the mouth.
To question his toughness after being battered, bruised and now bloodied for three seasons running now borders on willful ignorance. There are many valid questions facing Rosen as a pro prospect, but his willingness to fight for his team is not one of them.
Returning from his 3 game suspension, Jordan Lasley flashed his all-world talent, catching 7 passes for 159 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter that put UCLA ahead for good. As mercurial and hotheaded as he is, Lasley is an undeniable talent that makes the UCLA offense that much better.
UCLA’s rushing attack also had a fine game, buoyed by a creative Jedd Fisch game plan that ran the Sun Devils ragged for 192 yards and 6 yards a rush. Bolu Olurunfumi got the lion’s share of the carries, rushing 15 times for 79 yards and gashing a porous Arizona State rush defense. Christian Pabico, Eldridge Massington and Damian Alloway all got carries on neat reverses and misdirections that stretched an overly aggressive defense far and wide. While they will not count as rushes, UCLA’s screen game was also fantastic on Saturday. Few plays were more crucial than the big 56 yard swing pass to Olurunfunmi against an all-out blitz on 3rd down that put UCLA in the red zone. Two plays later, they cashed in to go up 34-24 and maintain control for the rest of the game.
UCLA’s offensive line was also superb. Arizona State came into Saturday as one of the country’s best pass rushes, but UCLA kept Rosen upright and gave up no sacks as he sliced the defense apart. Overall, the Bruins rushed for 6 yards a clip and 7.75 yards a play overall. That will keep even the worst defense alive in any game.
Speaking of the defense, it did as well as one could expect on Saturday. The raw totals are bad - ASU gained 294 yards on 61 carries (4.8 yards per rush) and 584 yards overall - but it came up with plays when needed most and took advantage of odd Sun Devil play calling to pull out the victory.
Marcus Moore’s deflection that led to the Nate Meadors pick six may have saved the season. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner had his best game all year, sacking Wilkins twice and causing havoc on the outside all game. While he was far from perfect, Krys Barnes collected 12 tackles. And Colin Samuel excelled in pass coverage, breaking up 3 passes and playing as well as any non-Nate Meadors corner has all season. He and Meadors could form a formidable duo next season if Samuel continues to play like this.
UCLA also held firm when most needed, holding Arizona State to just one 4th down conversion and 3 touchdowns in 6 red zone trips. The defense will not magically improve against USC, especially not against a Ronald Jones-led rushing attack, but if it can be opportunistic against a turnover-prone Sam Darnold, who knows?
There is plenty to say about this team’s flaws. The defense is porous at best, the receivers drop a ton of passes and special teams have been problematic all year. UCLA completely whiffed on punt coverage as ASU blocked a Stefan Flintoff punt without resistance to tie the game at 34 in the third quarter.
But it is undeniable that this team, at least at home, never quits. After the punt block, UCLA marched right down the field to retake the lead after a 7 play, 75 yard drive in under 3 minutes. From there, UCLA never looked like losing, even with the score so close.
After all, this team did come back from 34 down this season, and is now 5-0 at home. A perfect 6-0 record is certainly doable with Cal visiting on Black Friday, and just one win would put UCLA back in a bowl game and keep Jim Mora around for another season.
But first things first, the school across town looms large. Already the Pac-12 South champion, USC looks like a team peaking at the right time and the presumptive favorite for the Pac-12 title. The Trojans will also want to keep Josh Rosen winless in the battle for Los Angeles and send Sam Darnold out as 3-0 over UCLA.
UCLA fans have to hope and pray that somehow, some way, UCLA can trick itself into thinking this is another home game. It is in Los Angeles, after all. In what could possibly be his final game in this historic rivalry, perhaps Jim Mora can pull one final trick and defy the long odds against them.
With the way this team has fought, at least at the Rose Bowl, it is not the craziest idea in the world.
And maybe it is so crazy it just might work.