Joshua Kelley has been UCLA’s most consistent player, so coach Chip Kelly decided to push his luck with the redshirt junior running back.
The Bruins dialed up Kelley’s number on 4th-and-1 deep in Arizona State territory, but he lost a yard.
UCLA (2-7, 2-4 Pac-12) also missed a field goal, continuing a trend of subpar special teams play, as it trails 17-14 at halftime in Tempe.
Arizona State (5-4, 3-3) featured a heavy dose of running back Eno Benjamin – who leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game – throughout the first half. He carried the ball six times on the Sun Devil’s opening drive, gaining 28 yards, and finished with 51 yards on 14 carries.
Graduate transfer Wilton Speight started the game at quarterback over freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson and immediately found redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson for gains of 10 and 18 yards on UCLA’s first two plays.
The Bruins also gained 26 yards on a jet sweep to junior wide receiver Theo Howard on its opening possession. Redshirt junior running back Joshua Kelley finished the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run, marking his sixth straight game finding the end zone.
With multiple defenders crashing down on Kelley, Speight showed a willingness to run with the ball. The quarterback ran four times for 13 yards, not counting sacks.
Speight was nearly perfect through the air, finishing the first half 11-of-13 for 135 yards. He completed all of his pass attempts and picked up eight yards with his legs on a 3rd-and-5 play. UCLA converted five of its eight third downs in the first half.
After Kelley was stuffed on fourth down, the Sun Devils capitalized on the momentum swing and drove down the field for a touchdown in seven plays. Quarterback Manny Wilkins kept the ball on a read option and ran into the end zone almost untouched from 13 yards out.
Missed tackles, penalties and poor special teams reared their heads again.
Arizona State receiver N’Keal Harry broke two tackles on a 39-yard reception, and freshman nose tackle Atonio Mafi added an unsportsmanlike conduct personal foul at the end of the play.
Junior center Boss Tagaloa committed a false start two plays before Kelley was short on fourth down. There was another false start penalty where every Bruin moved except for Tagaloa, who stayed in his stance crouching over the ball.
Junior kicker JJ Molson missed a field goal for the third straight game. This time, UCLA didn’t commit a penalty to push him outside his range – he pushed the kick wide right.
But two plays later, sophomore cornerback Darnay Holmes stepped in front of a pass intended for Harry and intercepted the ball, returning it 31 yards for a touchdown to give UCLA a brief lead. It was Holmes’ second-career pick-six.
Arizona State added a 5-yard touchdown pass from Wilkins to fullback Nick Ralston with less than a minute left to go back in front.