It only took about an hour for UCLA to go from a career-defining loss for head coach Jim Mora to a comeback for all time for the program. After being down 44-10, the Bruins scored 35 unanswered points, capped by a 10-yard Josh Rosen to Jordan Lasley touchdown pass with 45 seconds left in the game, to capture an epic 45-44 comeback win over Texas A&M at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena Sunday night.
UCLA’s Comeback Win Is One For The Ages
What was one of the more bizarrely memorable days at the Rose Bowl in generations turned into an unforgettable night for Bruin fans as Rosen put the team on his back, after being down 38-10 at halftime. Pasadena was in its fifth consecutive day of triple digit heat. This, followed by tweets from the Rose Bowl account about two hours before kickoff to take cover because there was a lightning storm nearby. Then came the hot rainstorm through much of the second quarter; the rain being one of the few things that got UCLA fans to applaud. Add to that, with UCLA not being in school yet and the student section less than half full, and the band not being there, the Rose Bowl stadium was easily 30% A&M fans.
The storm that mattered was the one caused by Rosen’s arm in the last 18 minutes of the game, and many Bruin faithful never saw it. With the Bruins down by four touchdowns at the half and being thoroughly dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage, the rain gave plenty of the nearly 65,000 in attendance all the reason they needed to find cover and not come back in.
Former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone devised, for the second consecutive year, what looked like a perfect game plan against Mora, who had fired Mazzone after the 2016 season. It was nothing elaborate. Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford took turns pounding at the right side of the UCLA defensive line, going right at defensive tackle Matt Dickerson. Williams finished with 203 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and Ford had 114 yards and three touchdowns. Even on obvious passing downs at third and long, head coach Kevin Sumlin, mostly kept the ball on the ground because it was ramming holes in UCLA’s defense. UCLA allowed 286 yards rushing the first half, which is the most rushing yards it has allowed in a half since 2005, (USC’s Lendale White and Reggie Bush combined for 307). It also kept some of the pressure of redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Starkel who was making his starting debut for the Aggies. Starkel wound up going six for 13 for 62 yards before leaving on the sixth series of the game with what appeared to be an ankle injury.
Conversely, UCLA’s offense was looking like a carbon copy of the disastrous 2016 season. Left tackle Kolton Miller was getting run over and through by Texas A&M defensive end Jarrett Johnson. The offensive line got no push to the second level for the run game. Bolu Olorunfunmi had little to no running room. The Bruins managed only 37 rushing yards in the first half, (to the Aggies’ 286). The receivers were getting no separation from the A&M defensive backs, and as a result, Rosen spent all the first half and much of the 3rd quarter running for his life as he did last season.
And then at that point in the game, Mora’s fortunes, Sumlin’s future and Rosen’s legacy flipped like a coin. UCLA finally got out of the nickel defense, realizing A&M’s quarterbacks were not going to beat them. By going to a straight alignment, they finally shut down the Aggies’ running game. On offense, Soso Jamabo took over at running back and with his ability to hit the line quicker and get to the outside, it gave UCLA options. For the first time in three years, UCLA discovered how to use a tight end. Caleb Wilson was finding underneath holes in the defense, allowing Rosen to move downfield in short order.
With 13:22 left, Darren Andrews caught a nine-yard touchdown pass to cap a two minute, 85-yard drive to make it 44-24 A&M. With 8:12 left, it was Andrews on the receiving end of a 50-yard touchdown pass that went through the defensive backs hands. It capped a 96-yard touchdown drive that took only 1:06 and made the score 44-31 Texas A&M. The Aggies had a 43-yard field goal blocked and UCLA went 74-yards downfield in about a minute and half with Theo Howard catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from a scrambling Rosen.
Sumlin and Mazzone made the odd call to have backup quarterback Kellen Mond go to the air, instead of keeping the ball on the ground to burn more clock. The decision was fatal to A&M. UCLA got the ball back on downs with about two minutes left and marched 65 yards down field, the coup de gras coming when Rosen faked like he was going to spike the ball to stop the clock. It froze the A&M defense and he found Jordan Lasley in the corner of the end zone for the go ahead score.
UCLA FAKE SPIKE FOR THE LEAD ? pic.twitter.com/GHUOB2Olsf
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 4, 2017
The Aggies had a chance to get back into field goal range, but on fourth and ten with 27 seconds left, Mazzone strangely called for a quarterback draw which came up half a yard short and gave UCLA the chance to kill the rest of the clock.
Two coaches came into the game theoretically on the hot seat for their respective jobs. One team was starting a new quarterback, while the other had a prodigy who had not played in nine months and was returning with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons. Throw in the weather, the crowd leaving early and what you had was one strange day. As for the game, what you got was a display that anyone who saw it will not soon forget; the second biggest comeback in FBS history.
What does it mean for the two teams? Impossible to say. UCLA hosts Hawaii next and Texas A&M gets Nicholls State at home. They are throw away games that are not going to tell us much about either team, but Texas A&M needs the win and UCLA needs the breather. As Rosen said after the game, “You want to be able to look at the film tomorrow and be proud of what you have done in the third and fourth quarter.” There is plenty of that for UCLA to take away from this game.