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UCLA comes out on the wrong side of chaos

Josh Rosen throws two crucial interceptions & the Bruins pass defense gets lit up as UCLA lost a wild 48-45 shootout to Memphis on Saturday.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Memphis
Darren Andrews is a downright stud.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August, I theorized that UCLA’s 2017 season would be above all, chaotic.

So for the sake of my blood pressure, may no game this season be more chaotic than what was UCLA’s 48-45 runaway roller coaster loss to Memphis this past Saturday.

It’s rare for a team to gain over 600 yards of offense and convert nearly 50% of its third downs and still lose. Darren Andrews had another huge game, catching 10 passes for 175 yards, including a 65 yard touchdown that broke the top off the defense.

UCLA’s running game was also the best it’s been in the post-Noel Mazzone era. The Bruins finished with 170 yards as a team, which is solid. However, UCLA did it on 35 carries, and that 5 yard average per carry was better than every game average in 2016. Bolu Olurunfunmi, taking over for the injured starter Nate Starks, led with 77 yards on 13 carries and looked fresher than he did in the first two games.

In particular, UCLA’s runs out of 11 (one running back, one tight end) or 21 (two tight ends, one running back) personnel groups looked good. Early on, UCLA struggled to get anything going, as they were stuffed for minus yards on stretch plays. But Jedd Fisch stuck to the run, and eventually found a working formula on runs to the tackles without a fullback. With an already potent passing attack, a functional and competent running game only adds another dimension for UCLA. Perhaps this game will mark a turning point in an improved rushing attack.

Josh Rosen played another fine game, throwing for 463 yards and 4 touchdowns. Every time Memphis scored, Rosen led the offense right back. For the second straight week, he led a 99 yard touchdown drive, which was started by an absurd deep corner route from his own end zone. He’s now the national leader with 13 touchdowns and continues to be downright unconscious for long stretches.

However, in this game, Rosen made two unconscionable decisions and threw his first two interceptions of the season. The first was a boneheaded throw across his body on third and long; he did well to escape pressure and roll right, but as he looked to the middle of the field, Memphis linebacker Tim Hart undercut the throw and took it 60 yards the other way for a touchdown.

The second came late in the fourth quarter with UCLA down 48-45 and in the Memphis red zone. Facing pressure, Rosen threw off his back foot towards Darren Andrews, who was running a streak. Rosen figured Andrews would break his route off. Instead, Andrews kept going, and the ball fell into the arms of T.J. Carter, squandering a golden opportunity for UCLA to retake the lead.

UCLA ultimately fell short on the final drive in part due to another Rosen mistake. An attempted throwaway fell short of the sideline stayed in bounds, and Theo Howard had to commit offensive pass interference to prevent Memphis from making the game-sealing interception. Facing 3 downs to go 25 yards, UCLA only got 20, and a final drive to tie or win ended on an incomplete pass into tight coverage.

It’s easy and lazy to blame this loss on Rosen, especially since his two picks led to 7 Memphis points in a 3 point game. As with any gunslinger quarterback, he will make erratic decisions and make your heart stop.

But Rosen doesn’t play on a defense that gave up 41 points of its own.

As well as Rosen and Darren Andrews played on Saturday, Memphis’ Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller were equally outstanding. Ferguson finished with 398 yards and 6 touchdowns, and Miller caught two of those touchdowns with 185 yards of his own. After a slow start, Miller shredded anyone UCLA threw at him, including a two play stretch in which he beat Darnay Holmes twice in a row for 65 yards and a touchdown just before halftime. Memphis’ all-time leading receiver will be a fixture on an NFL roster starting next season.

But UCLA’s defense had yet another nightmare of a game. The game started as if Memphis would run all over UCLA, as the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage was an 80 yard run featuring 2 missed tackles by UCLA linebackers. Memphis would score two plays later.

In truth, UCLA’s run defense was fine on Saturday, featuring its new 5 down linemen, 2 linebacker look. A run defense that got gashed against Texas A&M and Hawaii stiffened against Memphis. After the 80 yard run, Memphis proceeded to gain only 110 yards on 27 carries for a pedestrian 4.07 average per carry. Defensive linemen Rick Wade and Chigozie Nnoruka, who filled in for the hurt Boss Tagaloa, were particularly good. Both knifed through the line on numerous occasions to make good plays.

But it was the back end of the defense - linebackers and secondary - that got scorched on Saturday. In particular, Memphis’ screen game confused UCLA to no ends. Memphis scored two long touchdowns in the second quarter on two different screens, the second of which featured literally one UCLA player on the play side. The entire back end of the defense followed the misdirection as Memphis faked a run left, only to run a screen to the right with blockers in front having no one to block.

It was as if UCLA had never seen a screen play or considered the possibility of misdirection, and it was catastrophic enough to cost UCLA the game. And with Stanford up next - a team that runs the ball from heavy personnel and has a running back tailor-made for the screen game in Bryce Love, UCLA faces a daunting task even against a scuffling Cardinal offense.

UCLA finishes its non-conference schedule at 2-1, right on schedule with preseason projections. However, getting to that point has been a wild ride that only promises to get wackier as Pac-12 play begins. So far, other than USC and Washington, it’s been difficult to tell if anyone in the conference is actually good.

This Saturday is now or never for Jim Mora if he’s ever to beat Stanford for the first time in ten tries. The Cardinal are reeling after two straight losses to USC and San Diego State, and the defense especially looks less fearsome than previous editions. But it’s still Stanford. UCLA came close last year thanks to a Herculean effort by the UCLA defense for 59 minutes and 15 seconds, but otherwise, Jim Mora’s team have been smoked by the northern neighbors.

It’s refreshing to watch UCLA football be fun and exciting again, even if also very stupid at times, especially opposed to last year’s morose games that saw defensive efforts spoiled by offensive incompetence. With Josh Rosen at the controls, UCLA will never be far out of any game.

But if UCLA is ever going to be close to fulfilling its promise and potential, and being more than just fun but actually good, then UCLA needs to avoid a tenth straight loss to Stanford and start its brutal Pac-12 slate at 1-0.