Josh Rosen tried playing the hero role against Memphis.
Similar to UCLA’s season opening comeback against Texas A&M, the offense had the ball with three minutes left in the game and needed a touchdown drive to steal a win from its opponent.
But this time, the junior quarterback ended up as the scapegoat as his fourth down pass dropped incomplete.
Despite throwing for 463 yards and four touchdowns, Rosen also harkened back to his “throw off your back foot and hope for the best” days, tossing a pick-six and a red zone interception in the No. 25 Bruins’ (2-1) 48-45 loss to the unranked Tigers (2-0) on Saturday.
“I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to go down and score at the end,” Rosen said. “We left a lot more points on the board. It’s our fault for not scoring more.”
Rosen’s day was characterized by NFL-caliber throws and lapses in judgment leading to critical turnovers.
On one hand, he delivered a deep ball to redshirt senior wide receiver Darren Andrews in stride as he sprinted past the Memphis defense for a 65-yard touchdown. Rosen also lobbed an indefensible back-shoulder fade to redshirt junior wide receiver Jordan Lasley for a 21-yard touchdown.
On the other hand, those passes sandwiched Rosen’s worst throw of the season.
Midway through the third quarter, the quarterback rolled to his right on a 3rd-and-19 play, stared down Bolu Olorunfunmi in the middle of the field and aimed a dart at the junior running back.
The only thing the ball found was Memphis linebacker Tim Hart’s hands, and eight seconds later it was in the end zone. The score increased the Tigers’ lead to two possessions, forcing UCLA to play catch-up the rest of the game.
“We can’t turn the ball over,” said offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. “We have to throw the ball away (when) we’re out of the pocket. We can’t take sacks – we took one sack (the play before) – but we can’t throw it across the body for a pick.”
Rosen was at his best Saturday whenever he had a clean pocket to step into his throws. Fisch even called some read-option plays – one of which Rosen converted into his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Nonetheless, Rosen’s decision making against Memphis’ blitz-heavy defensive scheme led to poorly timed throws.
On UCLA’s penultimate drive, the offense faced a 3rd-and-10 at the Memphis 19, and the Tigers dialed up a safety blitz. Sophomore running back Jalen Starks failed to pick up the blitzer, and Rosen threw late off his back foot toward the sideline.
Memphis cornerback TJ Carter stepped in front of the ball and took away UCLA’s best chance to tie the game with a field goal.
“One of the biggest rules about being in the red zone is don’t take sacks, but another bigger rule is no turnovers,” Rosen said. “Ideally, you think a little quicker and throw it away a little more conservatively, but sometimes you’ve just got to take the sack, get yelled at a little bit, take the lump and move on.”
UCLA’s defensive shuffle continues
The Bruins alternated between their nickel and 4-3 base defenses in their first two games of the season. But with linebackers redshirt freshman Breland Brandt, senior Kenny Young and junior Josh Woods unavailable at the start of the game, UCLA trotted out a unique defensive front.
“We were limited personnelwise on defense, so we played most of the game with five down, two linebackers and four defensive backs,” said coach Jim Mora. “We played (freshman Jaelan Phillips) and (redshirt sophomore Keisean Lucier-South) as 3-4 outside linebackers, essentially, and (sophomore linebackers) Krys Barnes and Lokeni (Toailoa) inside.”
Phillips, who tied for the team lead with two tackles for loss, ended up as another injury casualty in the third quarter. He suffered a right leg injury and was wearing a walking boot after the game.
However, the the Bruins did eventually get back three starters.
Redshirt junior safety Adarius Pickett sat for UCLA’s first defensive possession after suffering a right knee injury during the Hawai’i contest, but he played every drive afterward. Late in the first quarter, Pickett intercepted Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson to set up the offense in Memphis territory.
Sophomore nose tackle Boss Tagaloa, who sat out the entire Hawai’i game, didn’t see much time Saturday and didn’t record a tackle. He was called for an offsetting personal foul along with a Tiger offensive lineman to begin the hosts’ go-ahead drive.
Woods played in the second half after sitting out the first due to his targeting ejection in the fourth quarter against Hawai’i. He finished with four solo tackles and a personal foul penalty on Memphis’ go-ahead drive.
Redshirt junior punter Stefan Flintoft continued his strong play early in the season, downing his first four punts inside the Memphis 20-yard line – three of which were inside the 10. He has now landed six of his 11 punts this year inside UCLA’s opposing 20-yard line, compared to when only eight of his 23 punts did so in 2016.
Flintoft is also averaging nearly three yards more per punt compared to last season. After Saturday’s game, he ranks 48th in the country in gross average punt distance.