In a season of dramatic change for the UCLA football program, some things remain true. The Bruins cannot get past Stanford. Sure, maybe the Cardinal did not physically run through the Bruins as in years past, but a 49-42 win at the Rose Bowl made it 10 straight years for Stanford over UCLA.
In a season of ups and downs and twists and turns, the game lived up to that “in the micro,” as UCLA head coach Chip Kelly likes to say.
Adarius Pickett intercepted K.J. Costello on third and 11 at the Stanford 45 and returned it 22 yards. Pickett had an interception in his first home game at the Rose Bowl four years ago against Memphis, and now had one in his last game as a Bruin. The offense stalled out, as it has been prone to do this season and settled for a 38-yard J.J. Molson field goal for the 3-0 lead.
In terms of stalling offense, UCLA’s first two drives netted a grand total of nine yards.
The Stanford offense had no such issues. Costello hit J.J. Arcega-Whitside for a 19-yard touchdown to cap off a 62-yard drive. They would add a 30-yard Jet Toner field goal for a 10-3 lead. UCLA was going the other way. With quarterback Wilton Speight getting sacked, they now had one net yard of rushing in the first quarter until a 23-yard Joshua Kelley run gave them some working room. The Bruins would still have to settle for another Molson field goal, this one from 35 yards out, to get to 10-6 at the end of the first quarter.
Costello meanwhile was having no problems with the UCLA pass defense. He hit Arcega-Whiteside for 22-yards, and Colby Parkinson for 33 yards before Bryce Love ran it in for the last two yards and a touchdown to give Stanford the 17-6 lead.
In past years, it was this kind of physical domination that got to UCLA. The Bruins did have some answers this time. On a fourth and four play from the Stanford 39, Speight hit Kelley for six yards. A jet sweep play with Theo Howard picked up 12 yards and Kelley ran in the final 12 for a touchdown to close the gap to 17-13.
Again, Costello had answers. A 37-yard touchdown pass to Trenton Irwin was symbolic of the big plays the UCLA pass defense was giving up throughout the half. Stanford had a 24-13 lead and gave UCLA’s struggling offense only 2:27 left to work with. And again in a game of strange, the strange happened. On consecutive plays Speight hit Christian Pabico, Michael Ezeike, and Howard, picking up 73 yards in a matter of seconds. The faithful in the crowd of 38,391 that bothered to show up for the game had to be asking themselves where this offense had been.
Kelley would run it in from a yard out, after a three-minute-long Pac 12 officials’ review for the obvious touchdown call. It looked like the Bruins would go into the halftime locker room down only 24-20, despite having a substandard offense most of the half. The Bruins had used 1:50 off the clock. After the game Kelly bristled at the idea of leaving too much time for Stanford.
But wait. This was the freakshow of games. They could have used more of the clock. They paid the price for not doing it. Cameron Scarlett returned Molson’s kick 74 yards to the Bruins’ 26-yard line. Back-to-back pass interference calls on UCLA and Toner had himself another 20-yard field goal. Stanford extended the lead to 27-20 at halftime.
UCLA got adventurous again on the opening drive in the third quarter, going for it on fourth and five from the Stanford 40-yard line. Speight hit Devin Asiasi at the 30-yard line and the tight end picked up another 18 yards by bouncing off defenders. Martell Irby would run it in from 12 yards out and the game was tied at 27.
But, it was Costello with the big plays. Thirty-three yards of passing to go with a 22-yard run by Love, put the Cardinal in scoring position. Costello would again use Arcega-Whiteside’s 6-4 frame to throw over the top of Darnay Holmes for a 23-yard touchdown pass and a 34-27 lead.
On the very next play, Speight went back to throw and fumbled in his throwing motion. Stanford recovered at the UCLA 21. Four plays later and it was Costello to Arcega-Whiteside for two yards and a seemingly insurmountable 41-27 Cardinal lead.
Speight would move the Bruins 56 yards on the next drive, and then throw an interception to Paulson Adebo at the Stanford three-yard line. But did we mention this game was a freak show? On the next play, Martin Andrus smothered Love in the end zone for a safety to make it 41-29. And then things actually got weird. Yes, we said that.
After a season of mandating fair catches on kick-offs, Kelly took the reigns off Holmes on the free-kick return. Post-game, Kelly said because it was a free kick, it would naturally come up short, and UCLA would have good field position. He will see it differently, when he watches the tape. The kick was deep. It took Holmes to his own seven, but he had been given the green light, so he went. He finished 93 yards later in the end zone. The Stanford lead was down to 41-36. UCLA got flagged for excessive celebration, but who was going to blame them? They were were allowed to return one kick all year and it went 93-yards for a touchdown. They had no clue of any other way to react.
Then the unthinkable. A lead against Stanford. Speight would take the Bruins 90 yards downfield in 13 plays and run a keeper to the left side from a yard away. The two-point conversion failed but UCLA actually had a 42-41 lead.
You know what is coming next. Costello and a big play. Three plays after UCLA took the lead, Stanford took it back with Costello hitting Osiris St. Brown for a 52-yard touchdown and a 49-42 lead (after the Bryce Love 2-point conversion) that they would never relinquish.
UCLA had its chances. The Bruins had two more possessions, but they were spent with Speight scrambling, unable to find open receivers, (short of a 66-yard completion to Wilson), and missing when he did have them open. Speight also badly misjudged his place on the field on a critical down thinking he had crossed the line of scrimmage, thus not able to pass.
For a team that found an offensive rhythm in the second half, it was a very disjointed way to end the season.
The Bruins finished 3-9. They beat USC which felt good for a few days. But they had Stanford for the taking and could not close the deal. So, what is there to take from the game?
Speight had his biggest passing yardage game as a college football player. He finished with 466 yards on 29 of 47 passing, but no touchdowns. He had 100 yards more than Costello, but Costello had five touchdown passes, so guess who wins that battle. Of Speight, Kelly said, “he got banged around today, but just kept getting up and playing.”
Kelly was asked if had any thoughts on his first season at UCLA. He looked at his watch, “From the game that just finished three minutes ago. I think I’ll take a little more time before I reflect on that. I think our team showed up to play every game this season.”
The Bruins did not get physically dominated by Stanford as they have in the past. They held Love to 85 yards on 22 carries. But the lack of a pass rush that has hurt them all season, haunted them Saturday. “When you are playing against a talented kid like Costello, you can’t allow him to take as much time as he did, Kelly said. “It’s something we have to look at and work on in the off-season and make sure we can do a better job generating a pass rush so the DB’s don’t have to cover for as long.”
What do you need in order to do that? “We’ll identify that as a staff moving forward so this isn’t the time to talk about that.”
And that is how UCLA heads into the off-season. With some talent and a lot of youth at key positions, as well as plenty of unanswered questions. Only nine seniors leave. There could be some early departures, but it would be a couple at most. Theo Howard talked about the growth of the team from week one. Will he be part of the next stage of growth next season? Of course, there have been other departures that were part of the coaching transition. There is a sense those are not over, even though we are nearly one full year into the Chip Kelly era. With no post season to go to, the attention turns immediately to who will be back and the early recruiting signing period that is 25 days away.
While the games are over there is a lot of post mortem to be done starting right away heading into that December 19th signing period. Kelly likes to say he looks at everything in the micro. The micro for the entire season, post and future, starts Sunday.