UCLA football completed the largest comeback in program history Sunday night in its 45-44 win over Texas A&M. Junior quarterback Josh Rosen led the comeback by going 35-for-59 for 491 yards and four touchdowns, with each of those coming in the fourth quarter. Here are five takeaways we had from UCLA’s season opener:
1. The Bruins needed a ton of luck to win, and they got it
For the most part, UCLA took what Texas A&M gave them, and it was a lot.
Aggie kicker Braden Mann lined up for a 43-yard field goal with less than five minutes left that would push their lead to 16, but redshirt junior safety Adarius Pickett got a fingertip on the kick and diverted it enough to fall just in front of the crossbar.
Earlier in the second half, Texas A&M starting quarterback Nick Starkel had to be carted off the field with a leg injury, forcing true freshman Kellen Mond into action. Mond showed his prowess on the ground with 54 yards on 15 carries but could not find any success through the air, finishing 3-for-17 for 27 yards.
UCLA’s offense also found a streak of luck in the fourth quarter. Rosen threw a deep ball straight to Texas A&M defensive back DeShawn Capers-Smith, but the ball slipped through his hands and redshirt senior receiver Darren Andrews – who said he was preparing to tackle Capers-Smith – caught it for a touchdown.
“During my career at UCLA, a lot of times the chips didn’t fall in our favor, and I think it’s time they finally did,” Rosen said. “We worked our absolute butts off to right the ship from the last two years and play a little better and get some W’s and I think we really took a step in the right direction today.”
2. The run defense is porous, but middle linebacker Lokeni Toailoa is a difference maker
Texas A&M running backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford did their best then-Utah running back Joe Williams-impersonation in the first half, combining for five touchdowns and 265 yards.
At halftime, coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley decided to shift more snaps from the nickel – UCLA’s defensive alignment for the majority of the game – to their base 4-3 defense, and in came Toailoa.
The sophomore comes off the field when the Bruins go to the nickel, leaving senior Kenny Young and junior Josh Woods as the only linebackers on the field. Bradley said the defense practiced the nickel almost exclusively for Sunday’s game and didn’t have reps in the 4-3 for about a week and a half beforehand.
Nevertheless, Toailoa’s transition to the field was almost seamless, as he recorded multiple run stops in his first handful of snaps.
“Real tribute to (Toailoa),” Bradley said. “Now (linebackers) coach (Scott) White does move guys around there so they do get work in the nickel package. Because we’re able to do that, we can shift back to that base defensive package.”
3. Rosen stepped it up when he needed to the most
Rosen’s return to the field was somnambulant, at least initially.
The junior limped off the field following a second quarter sack, and overthrew at least three receivers in the opening half as Texas A&M built a 28-point halftime lead. At that point, Rosen said the offense was playing for pride rather than for the win.
“You want to go back to the film tomorrow and be proud of what you did in the third and fourth quarters,” Rosen said. “We wanted to give our fans something to be proud of.”
The gunslinger had only 114 passing yards through three quarters, but he ended up outgaining Texas A&M’s entire offense by the game’s end. He completed 19 of 26 pass attempts in the fourth quarter while showing poise against the Aggies’ blitzes on the game-winning drive.
On the penultimate play – a 4th-and-6 from the 20 yard line – Texas A&M sent an all-out blitz. Rosen saw the pressure and dumped a swing pass to junior running back Soso Jamabo, who evaded Aggie defensive back Myles Jones with a spin move to cross the first down marker.
The rest is history.
4. The offensive line is still a question mark
The offensive line only features one new starter – redshirt freshman right guard Mike Alves – and for the majority of the game, its performance was reminiscent of last season.
Rosen frequently ended plays laying on his back as his linemen struggled to contain Texas A&M’s blitzes in the first half. Redshirt junior tight end Austin Roberts let cornerback Charles Oliver sprint right past him and level Rosen, causing his second fumble of the game.
The Bruins’ running game didn’t fare much better, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Junior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi started but only gained 31 yards on 10 rushes and fumbled deep in UCLA territory to set up Texas A&M’s second touchdown of the game.
Backup running back Jamabo saw more playing time than Olorunfunmi in the second half because the Bruins started passing the ball more, and the Plano, Texas, product ran for 46 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
“I didn’t stick to the run as much as I would’ve liked to,” said offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. “I believe in our running game, and we really had some runs. Unfortunately we were pretty poor on third down in the first half. We were 2-for-9, and when you’re 2-for-9 on third down, you don’t get enough first downs. … You can’t run it as much.”
5. Special teams got back on track
Special teams were an eyesore for UCLA last year, as then-freshman kicker JJ Molson hit 12 of 20 field goal attempts and a trio of punters combined to average less than 40 yards per punt.
On Sunday, Molson and redshirt junior punter Stefan Flintoft showed better consistency. Molson converted his only field goal attempt – from 29 yards out – and nailed all his extra points. Flintoft averaged 46.8 yards on five punts and landed two inside the 20-yard line. His first kick sailed 63 yards in the air, and his second rolled to the Texas A&M one-yard line.
The Bruins’ coverage teams held the Aggies’ Christian Kirk to a 28-yard average on kick returns and no punt returns, although Kirk’s 40-yard return on Flintoft’s 63-yard punt was called back due to a holding penalty.
Freshman cornerback Darnay Holmes was UCLA’s starting kick returner, and he showed some burst through the holes his blockers gave him. Holmes averaged just less than 21 yards per return, with a long of 29.