Sometimes losses become so frequent, when opportunities to win come knocking a team does not know how to answer the door. UCLA had several opportunities to come out of Tempe, Arizona with its third win of the season Saturday afternoon. Instead it fell to Arizona State 31-28 to fall to 2-8 on the season and 2-5 in conference.
Wilton Speight was the starter at quarterback and had a game that would often be good enough for a win. He was 26 of 35 for 335 yards and one touchdown with one interception. The Bruins put together 439 yards of offense, despite their running game being slowed down. Joshua Kelley had 79 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
But it was what the Bruins couldn’t do with the chances they had. Self-destruction, thy name is UCLA.
ASU took a 3-0 first quarter lead on a 34-yard Brandon Ruiz field goal. The Bruins came back with one of their more complete drives of the season, going 75 yards in seven plays. Theo Howard picked up 26 yards on an end around. Speight had 28 yards passing, (all to Caleb Wilson), and Kelley had 21 yards rushing on the drive. He capped with a two-yard touchdown run. He is the first UCLA running back since Maurice Jones-Drew to have a touchdown run in six straight games. The Bruins never faced a third down on the drive, as they went up 7-3.
They had one of the pesky opportunities in the second quarter. The Bruins had a drive, going back to the end of the first quarter, where Speight was converting on third downs. He had a third completion to Howard for 17 yards. He had another to Wilson for 18 yards. On third and 14 from the ASU 27 he hit Kelley for a 13-yard pick-up to the Sun Devils 14-yard line. Instead of taking the routine field goal to tie the game, Bruins coach Chip Kelly, as he is always prone to doing, went for it on fourth and one. Speight handed off to Kelley up the middle and he got stuffed for a one-yard loss. No points. No opportunity.
It cost UCLA. ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins started taking advantage of the Sun Devils speed on the edge, hitting receiver N’Keal Harry with a 39-yard completion. A fifteen-yard personal foul penalty against UCLA was tacked on. Wilkins would convert that to a 13-yard touchdown run on an R-P-O play to the left edge. The Sun Devils had a 10-7 second quarter lead.
UCLA tried to respond. Speight put together another good drive that died between the 30’s. A 30-yard completion to Devin Asiasi, 10 yards worth of rushing yards from Kelley, completions to Wilson and to Chase Cota had UCLA in clear field goal range. But a holding penalty by Andre James and a false start by Jake Burton cost them 15 yards at the end of the drive. Stop us if you have head this before, after the penalties, J.J. Molson missed a 44-yard field goal. Opportunity missed.
Darnay Holmes did his best to turn that around. On the first play after the missed field goal, Holmes cut in front of Harry on the pass route. He picked off Wilkins and ran it back 31 yards to put UCLA up 14-10.
But again, Wilkins discovered UCLA’s vulnerability to speed on the edge. He moved the Sun Devils downfield in less than four minutes, ending with a yard touchdown to Nick Ralston in the flat out of the backfield for a 17-14 halftime lead.
ASU would extend that lead to 10 points in the third quarter with the most basic of drives. They used seven plays to go 76 yards. Six of the plays were Eno Benjamin running for a total of 74 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown for the 24-14 lead.
The Bruins cut the lead back down to three points with a two-minute, six-play drive that ended with Speight finding Wilson on a crossing route. The tight end carried a defensive back on his shoulders for the last five yards for a 33-yard touchdown pass.
What seemed like the death knell for UCLA’s opportunities came with Arizona State’s last touchdown drive. It burned a staggering 8:05 off the clock. It took 15 plays and 80 yards. Wilkins dove into the middle for a one-yard touchdown. It gave ASU a 31-21 lead and left only 3:56 on the clock for UCLA to score twice.
Speight answered. A couple of Kelley rushes, a Speight scramble, 32 yards worth of completions to Christian Pabico and an ASU pass interference penalty were enough to move the ball downfield quickly. Speight hit Wison at the front left front pylon for a 10-yard touchdown play. It was 31-28 ASU with 1:55 still to play and UCLA had all of its timeouts left to use on defense.
The Sun Devils recovered the onsides kick. UCLA stopped them on three straight plays, and stopped the clock with the three timeouts.
After the punt, the Bruins took over at their own 20-yard line with 1:33 left on the clock, needing only to get into field goal range opportunity for the tie.
Speight hit Cota for twelve yards. The two connected again but it was for nine yards to the UCLA 41. They only needed another 20-25 yards. But Cota came down in bounds, so the clock did not stop. The offense hurried, and Speight was hit from behind and fumbled. He recovered but it was a 12-yard loss back to the 29. That was followed by the ever-present false start penalties. One by Christaphany Murray moved UCLA back to the 24-yard line. The next play and it was Andre James’ turn to move it back to the 19. Add in the clock run-offs for the penalties and the Bruins could not take advantage of any opportunity that resembled potential success.
Each week fans are looking for signs of growth from what is one of the youngest teams in all of FBS football. Certainly, there have been some along the way. The presence of a running game, the improved line play with the return of Boss Tagaloa at center, and the reliability of receivers like Howard and Wilson to name a few. But Chip Kelly reminds us regularly that he analyzes the game in the micro, not the macro. That means the mistakes that kill drives, that take points away in close games, that erase opportunities to win games are hyper-perceptible. Youth is in August. November requires more discipline.