Man, it’s been a strange year.
The injuries. Some really strange games. Jim Mora being seemingly on edge the entire season. The officiating. The playcalling. Punting. The penalties. The penalties.
If you just think about Myles Jack…would you have ever envisioned before the season that he, in November, heading into Utah and USC, wouldn’t even be on UCLA’s team?
Would you have envisioned that Josh Rosen is perhaps one of the top five quarterbacks in college football?
How about envisioning: UCLA has three conference losses, and, with Utah and USC left, is still in control of its destiny.
The game Saturday night against Washington State checked just about every one of this year’s strange boxes, with the Bruins losing in the last minute to the Cougars, 31-27.
You know it’s strange and not the norm when it was the first time in the Mora ever that one of his UCLA teams was ahead at halftime and lost. It was 31 straight instances that UCLA won when it was leading at halftime, until this game. That epitomizes abnormality.
The strangest part of it all: The loss really doesn’t impact UCLA’s chance to win the Pac-12 South. If it had beaten WSU it would have had to still beat Utah and USC, and it still does.
How about the fact that UCLA opponents haven’t been called for holding against UCLA’s defensive line since the ASU game. It’s been five games. Colorado had 120 offensive plays and, amazingly, it was entirely clean?
It’s absolutely impossible that all of UCLA’s opponents haven’t held UCLA’s pass rush in five games. Yeah, not all holds are called, but you can realistically call a hold on probably one in every four pass plays. And Deon Hollins has to be one of the most prone pass rushers in the league to elicit a hold. He should earn at least one holding call every game. And not one hold? I’m more of a skeptic than a conspiracy theorist, but that flies in the face of all reason. Something has to be up with how the Pac-12 ref squads are calling penalties against UCLA. Let’s just concede that UCLA is penalty prone. Granted. And let’s just concede the Pac-12 officials are absolutely, stunningly horrible, and the people who have any responsibility for it should immediately quit, change their name, go live in Witness Protection and never think about it again. Let’s just concede that; there is still no way any of that explains UCLA hasn’t elicited one holding call from opposing offenses in five games. How is it that the officiating crews, that are supposed to review each game, come away from their review of each UCLA game since ASU and say, “Yeah, I don’t think we missed any holds. I feel really good about myself and the job I’m doing.” The UCLA fans at the Rose Bowl now have a new tradition: moaning collectively at the obvious holds perpetrated against UCLA’s pass rush. Even little Johnny in row 66 of section 28 can see it. Drunk Doug hasn’t left his tailgate and he can see it. Every time I re-watch a UCLA game I can see a pretty obvious hold on just about every one of UCLA’s defensive series, with a ref seemingly staring right at it.
Let’s throw out the issue of UCLA’s penalties and how bad the Pac-12 officials are. Something, still, is up with UCLA not getting any holding calls. I’m now leaning toward a conspiracy theory. It doesn’t make sense that a group of people, Pac-12 officials, got together and said, “Hey, let’s screw UCLA and not call a hold against their pass rush.” But something is up. It’s illogical to think otherwise.
Okay, done with that rant. But it was overdue.
Even without a holding call, UCLA should have beaten Washington State and, really, only has itself to blame for the loss. UCLA lost this game by itself. Throughout the night I kept writing in my notes: “Killing themselves.”
The penalties were a huge part of it. Yeah, many of them were erroneous. But many of them were legit. UCLA has a Penalty Problem. Say it again: UCLA has a Penalty Problem. If we acknowledge it, embrace it, and perhaps go to a meeting, that’s the first step toward recovery.
There were the two back-breaking fumbles.
Those two things right there pretty much created a sequence that almost entirely gifted the game to WSU. And it absolutely excruciatingly pains us to cite Ishmael Adams as the perpetrator, but it has to be said. He tried to field a punt within the five yard line and fumbled, and then, on the next series on defense, UCLA looks like it’s on the verge of mounting an epic stop, with a third-and-10 at the 14, but Adams then commits a silly hold on a sack, and a renewed WSU gets the touchdown.
But while Adams was directly responsible for handing WSU 7 points, UCLA’s offensive playcalling also pretty much kept 8 points off UCLA’s side of the scoreboard. UCLA started the game with two drives that brought UCLA into the WSU red zone, but decided to use the gimmicky jumbo package with defensive players. We don’t blame Jacob Tuioti-Mariner for false-starting; he’s a defensive lineman and shouldn’t be held accountable for a false start on offense. Then on the next series, in the jumbo package, it runs Nate Iese to the edge. Iese is a big, strong athlete, but doesn’t have edge speed. Head-scratching.
There was the Darren Andrews fumble in the third quarter, when UCLA was down 21-16 but putting together a momentum-wrangling drive. Both Adams’ and Andrews’ fumble probably were fumbles, but from the replays it didn’t look to be any way conclusive enough to overturn the ruling on the field.
Then, this game had its own special kind of strangeness with at least 7 dropped balls by UCLA’s receivers. Some of the throws weren’t perfect but, realistically, there were probably 7 throws that reasonably should have been caught that weren’t. It created one of the worst sequences of the game. And again, it pains us to point out that Paul Perkins, the all-time warrior who has single-handedly taken UCLA on his back throughout his three seasons, dropped a pass on an easy catch for a first down in the third quarter. That then led to punter Matt Mengel shanking a 29-yarder and gifting Washington State the ball on its 47-yard line.
Talking about punting and gifting: In the critical third quarter, receiver Kenny Walker went into punt and registered a punt for 0 yards. UCLA’s drive stalled at its own 47 and it handed the ball to WSU at the UCLA 47, which led to a WSU touchdown.
What’s amazing here is that in trying to recall some of the horrible sequences in this game, you can’t even remember them all. Or perhaps the brain is just blocking them out.
Drops, Fumbles, Punts, Penalties, Playcalling. UCLA killed itself.
UCLA out-gained WSU, 554-426. It averaged 6.2 yards per play, while WSU averaged 5.3. UCLA got six sacks. UCLA’s defense got some pretty big-time stops, especially with its back against the wall in the second half. And UCLA’s freshman quarterback had a masterful game, one you might have said would have been a key memory in what very well could be one of the legendary careers in UCLA football history.
UCLA should have won, no question. But UCLA killed itself.
Other than Drops/Fumbles/Punts/Penalties/Playcalling, the Bruins played a pretty good game. Like I said, UCLA’s defense stepped up when it needed to at very critical times in this game. With the score 21-16, UCLA looked like all the killing-itself factors had compounded, it was just too much for UCLA to counter, and WSU was on the verge of finishing off the Bruins. But from the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, UCLA’s defense did what it had to do and put together two big defensive series, and kept WSU to only 3 points on those two drives. UCLA defensive lineman Kenneth Clark was a beast, getting three sacks on the night and two on one of those series. Jaleel Wadood made an incredible play on a ball to save a WSU touchdown and set up what should have been the game-winning drive and touchdown for UCLA.
Even with all of the killing-itself elements, UCLA was still miraculously in the game. It seemed like it was set up perfectly for the type of heroics that, like we said, start a legend, and Rosen delivered. That last UCLA drive of the game was a thing of beauty, with a spectacularly composed Rosen taking UCLA down the field with incredible skill and playmaking ability. He had done the Rosen thing throughout this game: created more time in the pocket with his under-appreciated athleticism and then calmly made stunning throws. And then the surreal 37-yard scramble for a touchdown was capped off by a perfectly thrown ball for the two-point conversion. For a true freshman, in that type of situation, to be able to scramble for 37 yards and a touchdown, and then compose himself enough to throw that beautiful ball in the back of the endzone to Thomas Duarte was inhuman. A UCLA offensive lineman picked up Rosen and carried him off the field as the conquering hero/legend.
And then you have to turn away. WSU’s drive to win the game was that much uglier because there were at least two times that UCLA’s pass rush was clearly held.
It’s been a strange year, and that game was a microcosm of strangeness. Consistent with that theme, UCLA is strangely still in control of its own destiny as it heads to Salt Lake City. It wins out, it wins the Pac-12 South. The team has been through so much this year, so much strangeness, that you can very easily envision UCLA doing just that.