The most embarrassing error came early on, but the mistakes continued all night for UCLA’s special teams in Saturday night’s 28-23 loss to USC.
The Bruins gave up a punt return touchdown early in the first quarter, when they fell for a Trojan trick play that lured them to one side of the field while the ball headed toward the opposite sideline. It was the first punt return touchdown allowed by UCLA this year.
“Great play by them, very well executed by them, called at the right time,” said coach Jim Mora. “Everybody has a responsibility on a punt return, and we’ve been good on it this year – we picked the wrong time to not be good on it.”
USC punt returner Ajene Harris started in the middle of the field and drifted to his right, pretending to track the ball, drawing the UCLA punt coverage team in his direction even as redshirt junior punter Stefan Flintoft’s kick sailed the other way. The Trojans’ Michael Pittman dropped back and settled under the ball, catching it with nothing but open field ahead of him and taking it 72 yards to the end zone to open the scoring.
Flintoft said after the game that the play call was for a punt to the right, but that he also yells out the direction of his kick after it leaves his foot.
The postkick directional call is mostly intended to account for times when he miskicks the ball, but it could also help avoid falling prey to fake-out tactics such as the Trojans’.
The Coliseum crowd was riled up for Saturday’s rivalry game, though, making it harder for the coverage team to hear Flintoft’s call, the punter said.
“It’s a big game, it’s loud,” Flintoft said. “So it’s hard to relay those calls sometimes but we try our best. That one play, (the message) just didn’t happen to make it down the field.”
Special teams remained a problem throughout the game.
On top of Pittman’s touchdown, the Bruins allowed a 59-yard kickoff return in the first quarter and a 17-yard punt return in the third quarter, each of which led to touchdown drives for the Trojans.
On average, USC started its drives at its own 33-yard line, nine yards better than UCLA’s average starting field position of the 24-yard line.
Sophomore kicker JJ Molson also missed a field goal early in the second quarter and failed to properly hit an onside kick in the final minutes of the game, not driving the ball as far as intended and allowing the Trojans to recover easily.
“The onside kick – it was supposed to be a bloop to about 20 yards over them,” Mora said. “I think (Molson) knew what he was supposed to do and I think he stubbed his toe a little bit there and mishit it.”