The UCLA defense has been living on the edge through the first few weeks of the season, and Saturday they stepped right off it as the Bruins took their first loss of the season, 48-45 to Memphis, dropping them to 2-1 on the season.
Postgame analysts, the professional kind and the social media version, were quick to put the blame on UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen for the loss. He threw his first two interceptions of the season, including one halfway that through the third quarter that was returned 60 yards for a touchdown, giving Memphis a 10-point lead. Somewhere however, it must be noted that Rosen threw for 463 yards and four touchdowns, ran for another, and that the offense scored 45 points, but the defense could not make that hold up against a G5 program.
UCLA Defense At A Loss
The game was a back and forth affair from the outset. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson moved the ball with relative ease against a UCLA defense that was beleaguered with injuries, (defensive back Jaleel Wadood and linebacker Kenny Young), and a first half suspension (linebacker Josh Woods). The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter before the show really got going. J.J. Molson opened the second quarter with a 33-yard field goal to give the Bruins their first lead of the day at 10-7. Just minutes later, Rosen hit Jordan Wilson for a five-yard touchdown pass and at 17-7, the UCLA offense had seemed to find it’s groove.
Nothing Too Complex
The defense, however, was getting burned by routine plays. On third and long, with a chance to get the ball back in great field position, UCLA left Memphis tight end Joey Magnifico wide open in the middle of the field for a first down. That was followed by a 47-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson to Patrick Taylor that got the Tigers back in the game. Later in the second quarter, Riley hit running back Tony Pollard on a simple misdirection screen pass. Most of the UCLA front seven bit on the fake and Pollard turned a five-yard dump off into a 45-yard touchdown play and the lead for Memphis.
Rosen got a one-yard touchdown run with just over one-minute left to cap an 80-yard drive for what should have given UCLA a 24-20 halftime lead. However, Ferguson took Memphis right downfield on the UCLA defense, with a three-play, 70-yard drive that took all of 40 seconds and ended with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Miller and a 27-24 Tigers lead at the half.
The lead fluctuated between three and 10 points throughout the third quarter for Memphis. Bruin receivers started having problems hanging on to the ball, much as they did last season and Rosen was having to scramble to keep plays alive. UCLA took the lead back in the fourth quarter with what looked like a Rosen-esque drive. The Bruins were pinned at their own one, but he engineered a six-play, 99-yard drive that culminated with a Rosen to Austin Roberts 22-yard touchdown pass and a 45-41 Bruins lead.
Memphis struck back quickly, needing just over 1:30 to go 81 yards for a touchdown and a 48-45 lead. The Bruins had other opportunities. They were at the Memphis 25 when receiver Jordan Lasley did not pick up that the man covering him was moving inside to blitz. He ran the designed route, while Rosen threw the ball to where he would have been had he recognized the blitz. The pass was intercepted and a critical scoring opportunity was lost.
Memphis tried giving UCLA the game late in the fourth when inexplicably on 4th and short at the Bruins 25-yard line, they tried a fake field goal. Octavius Spencer intercepted the pass in the end zone and UCLA had one more chance with three minutes left. Rosen’s pass to Darren Andrews on fourth and five at midfield was broken up and for the third consecutive year, Memphis had beaten a ranked Power 5 conference team at home.
Where To Go From Here
Much will be discussed about Rosen’s performance. The first interception was completely a forced throw that a third-year starter should not be making. But the offense expanded in ways it needed to from the previous two games. The offense had been striking so quickly in the first two weeks that even in the wins they were -13 minutes in total time of possession in each game. There was a concern that the defense was on the field too much, and thus giving up big chunks of rushing yards even in the two wins.
Against Memphis however, the offense ran a more balanced attack, gaining 170 yards on the ground to go with the 463 yards passing. UCLA also won the time of possession battle by three minutes. Even with Rosen’s two interceptions and some forced throws, the questions about the defense remain. UCLA has given up an average of 514 yards of offense per game to three teams that do not run particularly complex offenses. Although Ferguson is a reasonably well-regarded quarterback, the defense giving up 398 yards passing and six touchdown passes should cause some sleepless nights in Westwood this week.
The answers will not be easy. Defensive end Jaelan Phillips left in the second half with what appeared to be an ankle injury. He returned to the sidelines on crutches and in a boot. He will be examined Sunday. Defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa will be suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game as he was ejected for a targeting foul on Ferguson. The status of Young and Wadood is still to be determined. A defense that was giving up big chunks of yards when it was fully healthy is getting depleted quickly. And then there is the little matter that UCLA’s next game is at Stanford, a team they have not beaten since 2008.