UCLA Holds Off Colorado

UCLA Holds Off Colorado

Sometimes it takes doing new things to get a team that has struggled in recent weeks into the win column. For UCLA Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, that meant playing tougher than usual run defense and using clock management on offense. Neither of those worked to perfection, but there were vast improvements over previous weeks. Mostly, they were good enough to get the Bruins a 27-23 win over Pac-12 South rival Colorado (3-2 overall, 0-2 Pac-12 play).

UCLA Has A Different Look

So, what was so different about this game for UCLA (3-2, 1-1)? For starters, the team adorned itself in all white uniforms, looking much like the road team in its home stadium. The “White Out” promotion hardly had the Rose Bowl awash in white, but the student section did its part. The irony is the all-white uniforms are generally remembered for being worn during a 50-0 loss to USC in 2011. That game ended the Rick Neuheisel coaching era in Westwood.

Beyond the cosmetics of the look and the promotion, UCLA’s first drive of the game was a telltale sign that the night would be different than recent games. The Bruins had a drive lasting just over six minutes. They got no points out of it, but just the fact that quarterback Josh Rosen was not playing Beat The Clock with the offense, and was keeping a beleaguered defense off the field, was eye opening for most Bruins fans.

The other significant difference was UCLA’s run defense. Colorado rushed for “only” 191 yards as part of its 434 yards of total offense. If you have not been paying attention through the first four weeks, the Bruins have been allowing an average of 307 yards rushing and 525 total yards per game. What Colorado gained on offense would have been a nightmarish evening for most defensive coordinators. For UCLA’s Tom Bradley, it was probably the first good night of sleep he has gotten in a month.

UCLA Holds Off Colorado
September 30, 2017. Colorado quarterback Steven Montez gets 25 of his 108 rushing yards. Colorado lost to UCLA 27-23 Saturday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo courtesy Wally Skalij/LA Times)

The task at hand for the defense was not easy. Colorado’s Steven Montez is a gifted sprint-out quarterback. Running back Phillip Lindsay had been averaging just under 110 yards per game coming into Saturday night. Montez took advantage of the continued absence of injured UCLA defensive end Jaelan Phillips with two edge runs, one on third and short, and one on fourth and one. The two runs combined accounted for nearly half of his 108 yards rushing on the night. The fact that he pulled it off once was a testament to his ability. The fact that he pulled off a second time was a commentary on UCLA being ill prepared for the play. Bradley said after the game, “We had practiced that quarterback read that they did a little different than they did it tonight.” As for Lindsay, the Bruins held him to 93 yards rushing on 19 carries.

Bruins Kill The Clock

UCLA Holds Off Colorado
September 30, 2017. UCLA running back Soso Jamabo struggles for some hard fought yardage. The Bruins got a 27-23 win over Colorado Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo courtesy Wally Skalij/LA Times).

While UCLA ‘s defense still teetered on near meltdown at times, the offense was unlike anything Bruins fans had seen this season. In addition to the opening drive that went 6:11, they also had scoring drives of 3:25, (touchdown), 2:58 (touchdown), 4:00 (field goal). Then came the ultimate clock killer; a 15 play 79 yard drive that ended with a 31 yard J.J. Molson field goal and burned 6:13 off the clock near the end of the fourth quarter. It extended UCLA’s lead to four points and forced the Buffaloes into needing to go 75 yards to have a shot at a game winning touchdown.

Colorado almost pulled it off. Montez’ scrambling ability tends to keep otherwise dead plays alive. Thanks to a defensive holding penalty in the secondary and a few quick out pattern completions, he was in range for the game winner.  Montez had one last shot but his 35-yard pass sailed out the back of the end zone. Everyone on the UCLA sideline could finally give one big exhale.

Of course, in what has become typical UCLA fashion this season, none of it was easy. UCLA’s leads fluttered between one and four points most of the night. The only time their lead extended into double digits was on a drive that burned the least clock. A 58-yard drive that ended with a Soso Jamabo two-yard touchdown run took all of 1:28 off the clock and gave the Bruins a 21-10 third quarter lead. Colorado scored 10 unanswered points to narrow the deficit to one with half of the fourth quarter still to play. Molson’s 31-yard field goal put the game away.

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre made it more challenging for his team. He had the Buffaloes line up for a very make-able 28-yard field goal with under a minute left in the first half. Instead, they ran a fake with Colorado holder T.J. Patterson took the snap and threw a swing pass intended for the kicker. It fell incomplete and Colorado lost a chance to cut the lead from four to one at the half.

Injuries and Discipline

It also wasn’t easy because while Rosen ran a ball controlled offense, (if you can 28 of 45 passing for 372 yards, one touchdown and one interception ball control), he lost one of his top receivers. Tight end Caleb Wilson left the game in the first half with an undisclosed ankle/foot injury. He came back to the sidelines in the second half on crutches. In the post-game interviews, head coach Jim Mora said it is a serious injury. He indicated Wilson may be lost for the season. Left guard Najee Toran also left the game with an injury, further depleting an already thin offensive line.

In other UCLA trends that makes the game more difficult, defensive back Darnay Holmes was ejected in the first quarter for targeting. He went hard into Lindsey on a short pass on third and eight. There was no flag on the play, but the review booth stopped the game to take a look. UCLA was hit with a 15-yard penalty and Holmes was thrown out. Because it was in the first half, he will not miss any further action. This was the fourth straight game UCLA has had a player thrown out for targeting.

UCLA still showed little ability to maintain a consistent running game. The Bruins had a total of 95 yards rushing and averaged under three yards per carry.

It was not pretty in any capacity. But, in this season of mixed expectations, UCLA got the job done for the night. As Mora put it after the game, “You can take a sigh of relief but you can’t act like it’s all fixed. There’s a lot of work to do.” The Bruins have time to put in the work as they have a bye week, followed by a trip to Tucson is two weeks.

Editor’s Note: to reflect that post publishing of this article, UCLA announced that tight end Caleb Wilson will undergo season ending foot surgery this week.