It was actually a pretty evenly-matched game. And when two teams are that close in terms of talent, the game will probably be decided by mistakes and a few key plays.
That pretty much sums up UCLA’s loss to USC Saturday, 40-21.
USC was close to flawless. No turnovers and no crippling mistakes.
UCLA, on the other hand, stacked them up. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen had perhaps his most-freshman game this season, responsible for three devastating second-half turnovers. UCLA didn’t commit an abundance of penalties (6), but there were a few critical ones at very inopportune moments. There was a bad punt and a USC punt return for a touchdown. And there was the playcalling early in the game that squandered a few UCLA opportunities.
Put those together and that will do it.
It’s difficult to say if UCLA’s offense had been more effective in the first quarter the game would have gone differently. But there’s a good chance. The playcalling started out very conservatively, with the run-run-pass plan stopping down UCLA’s offense initially more than USC’s defense. UCLA’s early offensive struggles established the tone between the UCLA offense and USC defense. It put UCLA’s offense a bit on its heels, and it gave the USC defense some confidence. It’s been pretty clear that it’s better to establish Rosen in each game by giving him pass plays in not-obvious passing downs, instead of allowing defenses to let loose some pressure on him and get him hit and rattled. But in the first quarter, Rosen was passing with his proverbial back against the wall a number of times. That tenor lasted the entire game. Again, it’s difficult to say if the game would have been different if UCLA had come out aggressively in its offensive playcalling, but you can probably speculate that things very well might have been.
UCLA overcame it, though, with Rosen and the UCLA offense scraping together an effective drive in the first-half to take a 14-10 lead. It seemed, at that time, UCLA had gotten over the hole it had initially dug for itself and it was back on good footing. There was 9:49 left in the first half and UCLA had managed to overcome its conservative offensive tactics to start the game and appeared to have the upper hand.
But when you set yourself back and then have to climb a bit of a mountain to get back ahead, you’re just a couple of bad bounces away from slipping down the mountainside again. With no room for error, UCLA committed some errors. UCLA’s bend-and-not-break defense made some big plays to keep USC out of the endzone and hold USC to a field goal, so it’s 14-13 with 2:47 left in the first half. Things still felt good. But then there was a few-minute sequence in the game that really changed the entire momentum. UCLA goes three-and-out, UCLA’s punter Matt Mengel gets off a bad punt, and USC’s Adoree Jackson returns it for a touchdown, 20-14 USC. The feeling of the game changed then, in USC’s favor, and you felt UCLA was trying to climb back uphill to get it back the rest of the game.
You tend to ask the question: If UCLA had made it a little easier on its offense initially, would it have been so difficult for the offense the rest of the game?
The second-half gave off the same feeling: UCLA fighting back up the mountain, only to hurt itself and slip back down the mountain side.
Starting the second half, the question was whether UCLA would be able to shake off the ending of the first half, and again get control of the game. In almost déjà vu, it actually did. UCLA put together one of its most courageous drives of the season, with Rosen converting difficult plays, and the Bruins went ahead, 21-20, halfway through the third quarter.
UCLA’s defense turned in a three-and out and, at this point, honestly, it felt like UCLA had overcome its own foot-shooting and was poised to keep control of the momentum and win the game.
But it took out the gun and shot itself in the foot again. Twice.
Rosen fumbled and USC’s Rasheem Green picked it up for a touchdown.
But even that wasn’t enough for a momentum killer.
UCLA was then driving again, picking up two first downs on two plays. It felt very much like UCLA was going to easily slice through the remaining half of the Coliseum’s field and regain the lead at 28-26 and still retain the momentum.
But Rosen threw the pick to Iman Marshall. USC drove the field on the now-taxed UCLA defense and scored, and it was 33-21. The game shifted pretty quickly from UCLA up 21-20 with control of the game and possession, to 33-21 and the Bruins deflated and almost beat.
It’s crazy, too, but UCLA wasn’t completely dead. At the end of the third quarter, with plenty of time in the game, the Bruins were again driving. Again, UCLA was slicing through the field and was at the USC 24 yard line. A score here would make it 33-28 and the Bruins would have an entire quarter to win the game. Nate Starks broke off a very impressive run, breaking six tackles, and it would have brought the Bruins down to the USC 13-yard line. But UCLA was called for an illegal formation, without enough players on the line of scrimmage. Instead of a 1st and 10 at the 13, it was 2nd and 15 at the 29. And Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 47-yard field goal.
The Bruins then fell all the way back down the hill and couldn’t climb back up again.
It might have felt like UCLA was dominated at times in this game, but the Bruins also controlled big portions of it. Even with climbing out of the initial conservative playcalling hole, if UCLA plays a relatively clean game it more than likely wins. UCLA averaged 5.6 yards per play, while USC averaged 4.8. UCLA had control of the game when the game was still in question.
UCLA’s offensive and defensive lines didn’t play exceedingly well. They didn’t own the lines of scrimmage; they also weren’t completely dominated on them either.
UCLA’s offensive skill guys were, for the most part, played well by USC’s defensive secondary. USC had beneficial one-on-one match-ups, with Su’a Craven being a good matchup for Thomas Duarte and Iman Marshall a bit of a challenge for Jordan Payton. But it wasn’t really a matter that Craven and Marshall owned Duarte and Payton; it was actually pretty even. UCLA’s secondary, too, particularly Marcus Rios, played USC’s receiving crew pretty evenly.
In other words, it was two pretty evenly-matched teams, with one of them hurting themselves too much.
UCLA ends its hard-knocks season with some more hard knocks. Probably fitting. Some of those hard knocks were self-inflicted, absolutely. But it’s also fitting that they were issues we’ve chronicled all season that came back to bite the Bruins against USC. The game was kind of a microcosm of the season – with some bad luck compounded by some self-inflicted wounds.
It was an opportunity for UCLA to conquer all that, but even with UCLA showing a great amount of fight to overcome its issues, they proved to ultimately be too much.