It was like a Greek or Elizabethan tragedy.
-- UCLA has struggled with turnovers all season, and, alas, a turnover was what did them in, from a player who has valiantly tried to overcome his fumbling flaw.
-- UCLA has been undone by conservative play-calling on offense all season, and it was during a particularly conservative sequence that the turnover occurred that turned the game.
-- UCLA hasn't been able to make the big play, and it had one in its grasp – literally – and couldn't hold on to it.
-- All season, UCLA has suffered from poor quarterback play, and it ultimately proved out to be the most consistent element of the game that kept the Bruins from winning.
-- And perhaps the most fitting, for a defense that was filled with tragedy for most of the season, coached perhaps by its lame-duck leader, it did enough to allow UCLA to win.
What makes for the best tragedy is that the protagonist is attempting to do the right thing – while he ultimately fails and, well, dies. That's exactly what happened Saturday night against USC.
On offense, after a season of conservative, unimaginative play-calling, it looked as if UCLA had turned a corner (hey, we now use the phrase in little places whenever we can) against Arizona State. Then, against USC, the play-calling was still better – improved from what it had been most of the season. There were imaginative calls, and plays that you can't remember the offense ever even attempting earlier in the season. UCLA threw the ball often compared to other games this season (35 attempts), and looked downfield. Yes, there were some head-scratchers, and some ill-timed conservative sequences. But, alas, our hero was more or less attempting to change his ways – however tragically.
The one particular ill-timed conservative sequence was really damaging. The scored was tied, 7-7, in the second quarter, but UCLA had driven the field, starting at its own 17-yard line, making it all the way to the USC 30. It did so, mostly, because of a very smart play call: a short, easy throw to Nelson Rosario, who went for 42 yards after the catch. It was a smart call since the game plan should have been to have the 6-5 Rosario repeatedly challenge the depleted USC secondary to make a play, and that was exactly what happened. The drive then, in very typical UCLA fashion, starting self-destructing, with two penalties that set back the offense 15 yards, to give them a first-and-25 at the 39 yard line. With about 4 minutes left in the first half, you could just see the machinations in the minds of the UCLA offensive brain trust starting to curl up conservatively on itself. You know it was thinking, "We're at the 39-yard line, and with far too many yards to go for a first down, all we have to do is get to the 30 or so and we'll be in the range of a Kai Forbath field goal, and then we'll be up 10-7 going into halftime." Actually, as some of the conservative notions of the season go, it wasn't entirely an unsound one. But on second-and-19, the ball was handed to Johnathan Franklin, the tragic warrior who had seemingly overcome his addiction of fumbling, and he fittingly coughed up the ball – into the hands of USC's Malcolm Smith, who ran it back 68 yards for a touchdown. Franklin's tragic elements are profound: producing that devastating fumble while being the first 1,000-yard rusher for UCLA in 4 yeras, on a night when he was first Bruin to run for 100 yards against USC since DeShaun Foster in 1998. The tragic moment was prolonged, as most are, by UCLA challenging whether Franklin was down when he fumbled.
It was a huge turaround in the game. As most observers were getting their head around UCLA possibly going up 14-7 or at least 10-7, it was USC that led 14-7.
After that, UCLA never could get complete hold of the game's momentum again. There were a number of starts and stops where it seemingly looked like it had its hands on it, but it proved to not be able to hold onto it fully, like a fumble or a dropped pass.
It was then one of the worst third quarters of any college football game in recent memory. In that quarter, there was only 94 total yards gained between the two offenses (UCLA had just 18), and three interceptions (USC's Matt Barkely threw two) and one fumble (committed by Richard Brehaut). Three of the turnovers were on successive possessions and the fourth was only a couple possessions later, making the game look more like it was between like two high school teams from Hemet than UCLA and USC.
So, up until this point, the two teams have both looked pretty poor. USC was only leading because of the Franklin fumble. Neither offense could string just a few well-executed plays together. Then, in the fourth quarter, USC benefitted from UCLA's bend-and-don't-break defense, which gives offenses a short space to operate and hopes it doesn't bust one, which USC did. On a pretty conventional swing pass to its running back, Allen Bradford went 47 yards for a touchdown, with one of UCLA's tragic defensive heroes, safety Rahiim Moore, missing a key tackle along the way. That put USC up 21-7 and seemingly the game would be in hand.
But in very typical tragic fashion, UCLA doesn't go down without a fight. On its next possession, it drives the field, with some execution that we hadn't seen much of for most of the game. Brehaut went 7-for-8, making some nice throws. Cory Harkey, UCLA's tight end with the tragic hands, actually caught two passes. Taylor Embree caught three first-down balls. Of course, it wouldn't be complete without UCLA trying to shoot itself in the foot, committing two penalties that set it back to a second-and-29 at USC's 38. On 4th down at USC's 19, Brehaut then threw a nice, catchable pass on a corner route in the endzone to Embree, who had the ball comfortably in his hands – and UCLA's hopes of possibly challenging to win this game – and then dropped it.
It was typical. UCLA all season has had chances to make plays, game-changing plays, but has failed.
It was fitting, too, that one of the motifs of the season – poor quarterback play – was a big factor in the loss. It was as if Shakespeare had written it; he would have been pleased with Brehaut as one of his tragic characters, for the young quarterback to have his career-best day the week before, and see hopes and expectations rise, to then be dashed by a poor performance to end the season. It's almost King Lear-like. Brehaut missed fairly easy throws throughout the night, made a number of bad decisions, locked onto receivers and seemingly couldn't simply get the ball past the out-stretched arms of USC's defensive line. And it wasn't as if he was under a great deal of pressure; for the most part Brehaut had a decent amount of time to throw.
It is probably the most dramatic that the defense, led by DC Chuck Bullough, who is almost certainly on his way out, did enough for UCLA to win. Bullough's defense limited an obviously not-himself-Barkley to an overall poor passing performance. But instead of keeping the other team from winning, it didn't ultimately do enough to win. The bend-and-don't-break approach did break a couple of times, as it is prone to do. With how the UCLA offense was clearly struggling to put up points, UCLA's defense needed to manufacture some, but it didn't put itself in a position – that is, putting pressure on the quarterback – to get Barkley to turn over the ball more. Again, it's perfect tragedy, that the protagonist keeps doing the same thing he believes in, with a modicum of success, to eventually be undone by it.
From a personnel standpoint on defense, it was incredibly fitting. Perhaps UCLA's best defensive player of the season, safety Tony Dye, led the team with 13 tackles and had an interception. While his teammates Moore and Akeem Ayers continue to get mentioned as the two UCLA defensive standouts and are considered early-jumpers for the NFL, Dye has been, by far, the more consistently effective defender. It would be very apt and satisfying if he, at the team banquet, was given the defensive MVP award outright. Moore, who we completely respect for his effort and dedication, had a hot and cold game, making a few nice plays while also getting beat on some key ones. But consider this: If Moore hadn't been in the right place at the right time for those 10 interceptions in 2009, would anyone be talking about him going to the NFL early? Would most onlookers be recognizing Dye or Moore as the true standout safety?
And then there's Ayers. It's fitting that the player who, by many, is projected to jump to the NFL and possibly be a first-round pick was almost completely non-existent in the biggest game of his supposed last season. It's uncanny how his play has turned, from being flat-out incredible in the first several games to amazingly average in the last half of the season, including in this game.
We want to give credit to a few defensive players. True freshman Cassius Marsh took another step forward in his development, being involved in so many plays. Sophomore defensive end Damien Holmes, who earlier in the season looked like he didn't belong on the field, has had moments in the second half of the season, and in this game as well. Much-maligned cornerback Aaron Hester had perhaps one of the most athletic plays of recent years, coming off the ground to make an interception.
Special commendation has to go to senior defensive tackle David Carter, who played exceptionally well. His penetration on a fourth-down run by USC was NFL-worthy, and he made a number of plays throughout the night.
So, the season comes to an end, thankfully and, in such classic tragic style, with the story's hero being killed off at the hands of his evil arch-enemy. Sophocles and Shakespeare would have loved the Bruins of 2010.