UCLA entered Saturday’s road test against Memphis still feeding off the glow of the miraculous comeback Josh Rosen led two weeks ago against Texas A&M, but Rosen found himself outdueled by another gun-slinging quarterback in the Tigers’ high-octane 48–45 home win over the country’s No. 25 team.
Both offenses provided plenty of fireworks during a shootout that involved seven lead changes and wasn’t decided until the final seconds, but Riley Ferguson (398 yards, six touchdowns, one interception) got the better of Rosen (463 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions) on an afternoon that made it clear Rosen has to be something very close to perfect in order for the Bruins to be successful.
In the end, the game came down to those turnovers. Rosen’s two interceptions came at crucial moments when the Bruins could least afford a mistake. UCLA’s final drive opened with Rosen starting at his own 20-yard line with 2:47 to win the game, and he couldn’t lead the offense deep into Tigers territory, as the Bruins turned the ball over on downs near midfield.
Rosen’s first interception of the day, a pick-six returned 60 yards by Tigers linebacker Tim Hart, turned a 34–31 Memphis lead into a 10-point deficit with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. Rosen had been flushed from the pocket and made the cardinal quarterback sin of throwing the ball late, across his body and down the middle. To that point, Rosen certainly hadn’t been perfect—UCLA had ended its first two drives with punts and took a quarter to hit its stride—but he was the Bruins’ best player by far, and suddenly an interception seemed to negate everything.
Rosen’s outsize personality has earned him as many critics as fans, and after injuries torpedoed his sophomore season and drummed up the intrigue ahead of what could be one final campaign before the NFL draft, he was expected to string together enough solid on-field performances this season to match the hype. A side effect of that increased scrutiny: Plenty can swing on a few throws, good or bad.
Within 10 minutes of play after the pick-six, Rosen had the Bruins back on top, launching a perfect 21-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Lasley in the corner of the end zone on the ensuing possession and then hitting Austin Roberts for another score early in the fourth quarter to give UCLA a 45–41 lead.
Rosen’s second interception ruined UCLA’s final trip to the red zone just over halfway through the fourth quarter, taking valuable points off the board with the Bruins down by three.
On this day, Rosen wasn’t the best quarterback on the field. Ferguson, the senior that replaced Paxton Lynch under center for the Tigers last year, was impressive in the win, completing more than 60% of his passes. Memphis may be the better team, and it was certainly the more well-rounded of the two. But again, it’s hard to blame Rosen for UCLA’s first loss of the year. When he alone is his team’s offense (he threw 56 passes on the afternoon) and the defense does him no favors, good opponents are going to capitalize. If the Bruins want to go anywhere in the Pac-12 this year, they’ll have to be able to lean on more than just their star QB.