If only Josh Rosen could play special teams. Or if only he could substitute in for weary players on defense late in a game. If that kind of craziness was possible, anything could have happened Saturday night at the Coliseum. Instead, Rosen played a phenomenal game, but UCLA shot itself in the foot repeatedly with mistakes and lost 28-23 to USC.
It is the third loss in a row to the Trojans. It was much closer than the previous two and certainly a tighter game than the 16-point spread had most people expecting.
UCLA Loses To USC, 28-23
Self Inflicted Wounds
It only took about five minutes of game time for things to look like they were going to get out of hand for UCLA. The Bruins punted on fourth and seven from their own 24-yard line. The problem was the punt went one direction and the coverage team went the other. The coverage team went to the left while Stefan Flintoft kicked along the right sideline instead. Michael Pittman ran back to retrieve the kick for USC and returned it 72 yards, untouched down the sidelines for a Trojans 7-0 lead.
Rosen responded with a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive mixing in some runs by Bolu Olorunfunmi and a 41-yard completion to Jordan Lasley. Rosen connected with Lasley for an 11-yard touchdown pass and the game was tied at seven.
USC running back Ronald Jones II had 30 yards of rushing on the next series, including a two-yard touchdown run and the trojans were up 14-7. J.J. Molson would come up short on a 44-yard field goal attempt. Darnold would show horrific clock mismanagement at the end of the first half, scrambling for a first down, but burning the remining 12 seconds of game clock doing it. And, at the end of it all USC had a one touchdown lead going into the half.
Keeping It Close
Even behind by seven at the intermission, UCLA looked like it could compete with the Trojans and USC looked less than the dominant team most expected. While the Bruin brought in the worst rush defense in the country, USC’s Jones had “only” 80-yards rushing at the half. Darnold was effective but had not burned UCLA with any big plays.
What was certainly a concern for UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley however was that his players could not get to Darnold. The redshirt sophomore kept plays alive by scrambling out of pressure. Even if he did not complete the pass, he was not paying a price as the defense rarely got clean hits on him. At some point, logic would say, a UCLA defense that was thin on personnel, was going to tire. The Bruins offense was also contributing to the pain with mistakes. A Soso Jamabo touchdown run was called back for a clipping penalty on the offensive line. Late in the second 2nd quarter, UCLA was at the Trojans 17-yard line. Scott Quessenberry got crushed by Malik Dorton, who sacked Rosen, and Rosen fumbled the ball away to USC.
There were opportunities throughout the night. UCLA just found a way to toss them aside.
More Self Inflicted Pain
The Bruins opened the third quarter with a four-and-a-half-minute drive that went all the way to the USC 14-yard line. That was when Rosen made his one glaring mistake of the game, thinking he had an open receiver in the back of the end zone. He threw a dart that was intercepted by Marvell Tell and returned to the USC 29-yard line. The Trojans did not convert the turnover into points, but with a game this close throughout, every missed opportunity was like a fresh dagger.
Another special teams miscue would cost the Bruins midway through the third quarter. Flintoft got off a punt from deep inside Bruins territory. The ball landed inside the USC 40-yard line and the UCLA punt coverage team pulled up assuming the ball would be killed there. USC’s Ajene Harris picked it up on the third hop though, and returned it 17 yards to the UCLA 44. The Trojans got a short field and needed only five plays to convert it to a Darnold one-yard touchdown run and a 21-7 lead.
Even at that, it did not feel like UCLA was out of it. A defense that gave up rushing yards by the mile all season had kept Jones from back breaking runs and while Darnold was effective, he was not providing momentous plays.
Following the Darnold touchdown, Rosen led a 79-yard touchdown drive that featured Jamabo’s runs and Lasley’s catches, including a nine-yard touchdown reception to get the USC lead back down to a touchdown. A Molson 26-yard field goal cut it down to four points in the fourth quarter.
Not Enough Left In The End
That is when the odds, the fatigue and the balance of the game came into a perfect storm. USC marched 90 yards downfield on a 10-play, five-minute drive. It was the one time the Bruin defense finally look tired. Jones started hitting for four and five yard runs at a pop. Darnold found Stephen Carr on what should have been a basic wheel route but Nate Meadors and Kenny Young ran into each other and the Trojans picked up 29 yards on the play. Bruin defenders now had hands on hips as Darnold picked up eight to nine yards per pass. Jones had a physically battering two-yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach at 28-17.
UCLA would go down and score another touchdown on an over the shoulder catch in the end zone by Lasley. The two-point conversion failed. USC got another 15-yards out of Jones running out the clock. The game ended with Darnold doing what every quarterback dreams about doing in a rivalry game. Taking a knee in the victory formation.
In what was supposed to be a marquee match-up of quarterbacks, Rosen finished the game 35 of 52 for 421 yards and three touchdowns. He also had the one costly interception. His counterpart, Darnold, was 17 of 28 for 264 yards, no passing touchdowns and one interception. He did have the one rushing touchdown. The UCLA defense held Jones in theoretical check. The Bruins were giving up 302 yards rushing per game coming into Saturday night. They gave up 153 to USC with Jones getting 122. The problem was big chunks of those came late in the game with the outcome still to be decided. Lasley had the game of his UCLA career. The junior had 10 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns. Much of that came against former Serra High teammate Jack Jones who was guarding him in throughout the night.
Some will take solace that the game was closer than most expected. For others, the loss will be more painful because the game was within reach most of the night. The Bruins played perhaps their most complete game of the season and still lost. The mistakes were too much to overcome.
There is also the knowledge that for all the work Rosen put into Saturday night, this was his last game in the rivalry. That makes next season a rebuilding year again. He is 15-12 in games he started at UCLA. Not what anyone expected when he embarked on his journey in Westwood. But, considering the roller coaster ride of offensive schemes over the last three seasons, he saved one of his best all time performances for a game that means the most every year, even if he could not do it all.
The Bruins finish the season Friday at home against Cal. Both teams are 5-6 and looking to become bowl eligible at 6-6. The Bruins will have to do it with more players added to the list of walking wounded. Olorunfunmi left the game late in the fourth quarter with his second leg injury of the night. Head coach Jim Mora would not be specific after the game but said the running back is doubtful for the