Redshirt freshman quarterback Devon Modster was flawless through the first half of his starting debut in place of junior Josh Rosen, completing all seven of his passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.
But in the second half, UCLA’s entire offense stalled and Modster only completed one of his final five passes before leaving with a thumb injury.
“I was happy with the way we started,” said offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. “ I thought (Modster) played well, I thought he really made good decisions all the way through.”
Fisch started the game by calling four consecutive carries for junior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, and all of UCLA’s first 11 plays were either rushes or passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
But once Modster started getting opportunities to throw the ball downfield, he made the most of them. He hit redshirt senior receiver Darren Andrews down the sideline for a 42-yard gain against man-to-man coverage, setting up sophomore kicker JJ Molson’s 37-yard field goal in the first quarter.
And in the second quarter, Modster linked up with sophomore receiver Theo Howard for an Odell Beckham-esque leaping one-handed catch. On the next play, the backup quarterback perfectly placed a throw over a defender draped over Andrews in the back of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown.
“Honestly, I’ve been waiting to get a one-hand catch like that,” Howard said after the game. “We were kind of hand-fighting down the field, and I just knew I couldn’t get both hands up, so I just tried the best I could to see if I could get one out.”
That was the end of the Bruins’ success moving the ball, though.
Utah’s first play from scrimmage in the second half – a 75-yard touchdown pass to wide-open running back Troy McCormick – gained more yards than UCLA’s offense did in the entire second half.
The Bruins didn’t gain a first down on all four of their drives in the third quarter, and the Utes scored 27 unanswered points to pull away.
“They weren’t very good series, so whatever we need to do, we need to do something better,” Fisch said. “Prior to that, I think we were coming out and scoring in the third quarter.”
To make matters worse, Mora said Modster hit his thumb on his helmet and injured it, sending redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Lynch in for his first collegiate game action.
Lynch – who played the entire fourth quarter – led a 75-yard touchdown drive aided by two Utah penalties on his first possession. He threw his first career touchdown pass to redshirt senior receiver Eldridge Massington, but the Bruins went three-and-out in Lynch’s other possession.
For the entire game, UCLA was 3-of-12 on third down and had seven three-and-outs.
“Anytime you’re fighting with your backup quarterback and your third guy, that’s a factor,” coach Jim Mora said. “Not getting off the field, not staying on the field on third down, that’s a factor.”
Fisch gets fancy
The Bruins have called a bevy of trick plays this season, ranging from flea flickers to wide receiver passes and unique formations to try to confuse the defense.
Against Utah, Fisch dove into his bag of tricks and gave UCLA fans a treat three times in a single possession.
He called an end-around to Howard and a reverse to speedy redshirt freshman receiver Demetric Felton on consecutive downs in the first quarter. Four plays later on third down, redshirt freshman wide receiver Dymond Lee made his collegiate debut for a double-pass. A converted quarterback, Lee had two reads he could throw to, but Utah stuffed the play and forced UCLA to kick a field goal.
“We thought we had the coverage we wanted and they did a nice job covering the back and his checkdown was the quarterback,” Fisch said. “He got it to his checkdown and then (Modster) fell forward for a yard or two.”