Freshman phenom Josh Rosen struggled, but UCLA’s running game picked up the slack as the Bruins rallied back to beat BYU 24–23.
A crazy slate of night games in Week 3 finished with a bang, as No. 10 UCLA and No. 19 BYU went down to the wire before the Bruins pulled out a 24–23 win with a touchdown drive in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. There were no late-game theatrics for Tanner Mangum and the Cougars this particular Saturday night, as BYU suffered its first defeat of the year.
Here are three thoughts on UCLA’s win:
1. UCLA beat BYU at its own game
Mangum, BYU's 22-year-old freshman quarterback, has become one of the darlings of the 2015 college football season thanks to his season-opening Hail Mary against Nebraska and another last-minute touchdown heave against Boise State last week. The Cougars' defense supported those efforts by not allowing any fourth-quarter points heading into the matchup with UCLA.
On Saturday night, the Bruins ensured that BYU wasn’t going to escape with a dramatic win for the third consecutive week. UCLA ended BYU's fourth-quarter shutout streak when freshman phenom Josh Rosen connected with Jordan Payton on a 19-yard touchdown pass to cut the Cougars’ lead to 20–17 with 12:16 remaining. Nate Starks gave the Bruins their first lead (and the lead for good) on a three-yard touchdown run with 3:21 left.
That set BYU up for another potential late-game comeback, as the Cougars got the ball with plenty of time left needing only a field goal to come away with a win. But UCLA’s defense held strong. BYU stalled at the UCLA 42-yard line, and star linebacker Myles Jack picked Mangum off on fourth down to clinch the victory. The Mangum magic was exhausted for one week at least, though the quarterback did make fewer mistakes and wild throws against the Bruins than he did against Boise State last Saturday.
2. Rosen struggled, but UCLA’s running game picked up the slack
UCLA's freshman looked very much like a freshman for the first time this season Saturday, especially in the first half. Playing in the biggest game to date in his young career and against the toughest defense he’s yet to face, Rosen struggled mightily out of the gate, throwing three interceptions and completing just five of 15 passes for 52 yards before halftime. The secondary is the weak point of the Cougars’ defense, but BYU expertly confused Rosen and forced him to make hurried throws—two of his interceptions came when he was scrambling to avoid pressure.
Luckily for the Bruins, the ground game came ready to make up for Rosen’s struggles. Boasting a stout front seven, BYU had allowed an average of 95 rushing yards through its first two games, but UCLA gashed the Cougars to the tune of 296 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries, good for 7.8 yards per rush. While Rosen was having an unproductive first half, UCLA ran for 143 yards, including junior Paul Perkins’s 128 yards on 12 attempts. (Perkins finished with 219 yards on 26 carries with one touchdown, perhaps adding his name to the list of Heisman contenders.) Sophomore back Nate Starks keyed UCLA’s winning drive, ripping off consecutive runs of 31 and 22 yards to get the Bruins to the edge of the end zone and then finishing the drive himself with the winning score.
3. Despite a near loss, the Bruins' outlook remains sunny
It certainly wasn’t a pretty win for UCLA, and Rosen’s first-half play was discouraging, but the Bruins remain a strong Pac-12 and playoff contender.
BYU is a very solid team—it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see the Cougars win out with their schedule easing up the rest of the way—and USC, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State, the presumed other main contenders in the Pac-12, have all already fallen, with the Trojans dropping a conference game to the Cardinal on Saturday. The fact UCLA remains unblemished is the most important takeaway from its near loss Saturday.
While the Bruins can't afford Rosen to make a habit of playing like his first-half self Saturday, that’s unlikely to be the case. Head coach Jim Mora Jr. should be heartened by the way Rosen improved in the second half, and the freshman should only continue to get better, especially now that he’s seen tougher competition. Plus, UCLA has shown it has the supporting cast offensively to weather some freshman struggles. The Bruins remain a prime contender, if not the prime contender, in the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, BYU came this close to really throwing the season for a loop. An undefeated Cougars team with wins over Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Missouri (whom BYU plays later this season) would have produced a giant controversy come playoff selection time. With enough mayhem for other playoff contenders, that could possibly still happen if BYU wins out, but the potential for chaos is mitigated significantly with this loss on the Cougars' résumé.