The last time Josh Rosen seized the college football world’s attention with his arm was two years ago. Rosen was a true freshman making his debut against Virginia, and in the space of 60 minutes against an overmatched defense, he managed to justify every ounce of hype he brought to Westwood as a five-star recruit in the class of 2015. Rosen was resplendent, completing 28 of his 35 passing attempts for 351 yards and three touchdowns and causing NFL front office types around the country to begin counting down his eligibility clock.
Between then and the Briuns’ game against Texas A&M on Sunday at the Rose Bowl, Rosen created far more headlines for things he’s done without wearing a UCLA uniform than with one on. There was the hot-tub dormitory photo with a University of Arizona co-ed that drew approving nods from frat bros but tsks-tsks from UCLA housing officials, the baseball cap he wore to one of Donald Trump’s golf courses with a special message for the then-presidential candidate, and the interview he gave to Bleacher Report this summer in which he laid bare the fundamental contradiction at the heart of college sports’ amateur model.
By the time Rosen started his junior year as UCLA’s starter, the luster of his recruiting ranking and that mesmerizing debut had worn off, and another quarterback in Los Angeles, USC’s Sam Darnold, had supplanted him on 2018 mock drafts (we have Darnold going No. 1 in our latest) and seized his title as the de facto leader of the Year of The Quarterback crop. For many observers irritated by the asymmetry between his off-field controversies and his on-field production—setting aside the fact he missed half of last season with a shoulder injury—Rosen’s act was getting old.
What went down in Pasadena on Sunday, then, was a spectacular response to the growing put-up-or-shut-up chorus and a vivid reminder that, for as much as Rosen’s personality and actions outside the lines may not conform to the student-athlete standard parroted by coaches at press conferences every week, he can freaking play. That is probably the most appropriate way to assess Rosen in the wake of his performance in a 45–44 win over the Aggies, a 35-of-59, 491-yard, four-touchdown gem that, at once, put the first full Saturday of the 2017 college football season to shame, lifted a basketball school to the center of the national sports conversation with one of its football games and left Texas A&M fans in tears.
Anyone reading that stat line back a few times to make sure it’s legit after failing to catch what unfolded in real time would have been forgiven for flipping to the West Virginia–Virginia Tech game after the first half. At that point, Rosen had connected on only nine of his 23 passing attempts for 114 yards, and UCLA trailed 38–10. The Aggies’ lead grew to 34 points on a Daniel LaCamera field goal with just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter. From there, it seemed the best the Bruins could do was to tack on a couple of scores in garbage time to make the final score look somewhat respectable.
They did more than that. Rosen guided the Bruins on five consecutive touchdown drives totaling 35 unanswered points. A Texas A&M defense that through the first two-plus quarters repeatedly put pressure on Rosen, closed off passing windows and locked down receivers wilted in crunch time. Rosen coolly and efficiently marched UCLA down the field despite looking up at a yawning deficit, rifling darts through holes in coverage as the Aggies continually failed to get stops. Anyone who says they saw the comeback coming is lying, but with Rosen at the controls, maybe we shouldn’t have written it off completely.
One throw, in particular, presaged a special finale to a sparkling evening for Rosen: a 42-yard pass midway through the fourth quarter that should have been picked off by Texas A&M defensive back Deshawn Capers-Smith, but instead slipped through his hands to Bruins wideout Darren Andrews for a touchdown. Not only was Rosen balling, he was lucky, too.
But that throw checked in only at No. 3 on the list of his most insane touchdowns on Sunday. No. 2 was the off-his-back-foot heave that sophomore Theo Howard snagged near the goal line after Rosen calmly evaded an Aggies rusher in the pocket. And No. 1 was a gutsy fake spike play that caught Texas A&M’s defense napping.
When it was over, UCLA had completed the second-largest comeback in NCAA history, according to the Fox broadcast, and Rosen had authored one of the most remarkable performances from a quarterback in recent memory. As the seconds ticked down on the Bruins’ victory, it was easy to forget that Rosen began this season under heavy scrutiny. He left the field Sunday night at the forefront of every NFL general manager’s mind and on top of the college football world. No matter what Rosen does the rest of this season, this night, more than any quote he gave or stunt TMZ captures him pulling, will define his career as a Bruin.
This is, almost assuredly, Rosen’s last season before he becomes the face of some NFL franchise. Enjoy him while he’s here, because it could be a while before another quarterback comes along who’s capable of repeating what he did on Sunday.