The Bruins spent the offseason talking about how their 3-4 record in 2020 stung a little more than expected, since those four losses came by a combined 15 points.
Those 15 points were all that separated them from an undefeated season, after all. Even extending into 2021, their one loss entering Saturday came on a last-second touchdown.
But for the first time in nearly two years, the Bruins crumbled down the stretch and didn't give themselves much of a chance on their last few drives.
No. 20 UCLA football (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) lost to Arizona State (4-1, 2-0) by a score of 42-23 late Saturday night, sacrificing first place in the Pac-12 South in the process. The Bruins were held off the scoreboard entirely in the final 30 minutes after keeping pace in a back-and-forth affair in the first half, trailing by just one point heading into the break.
With Arizona State winning by 19, UCLA has now lost a game by more than one possession for the first time since Nov. 30, 2019.
"A loss is a loss," said coach Chip Kelly. "I don’t think there’s no consolation whether it was close or not, you try to decipher it and learn from it and that’s what our process will be tomorrow when we break down the film as coaches and when we start our meetings on Monday."
The Bruins actually scored the first points of the game, nailing a field goal from 48 yards out. The Sun Devils answered on their second drive of the night, capitalizing on a bad snap by Duke Clemens by hitting a field goal of their own.
The two teams traded scores for the rest of the first half, with Arizona State’s next three drives all ending in touchdowns. UCLA got two touchdowns and a field goal on their next three drives, and even when they had to punt in the final seconds before halftime, Arizona State muffed the return and gave Nicholas Barr-Mira another three points on a chip shot.
The ways in which the Bruins and Sun Devils scored their points were vastly different, however.
UCLA strung together long, methodical drives, dominating the time of possession battle in the process. The Bruins’ first four scoring drives took an average of 3:44, compared to 2:14 on the Sun Devils’ four scoring drives in the first half.
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels took the top off the defense with a 49-yard pass that led to an eventual touchdown. He then followed that up with a screen that went for 65 yards and then topped it all off with a 54-yard touchdown bomb to give the Sun Devils a 24-20 lead.
"We have to be responsible on each level of the ball," said linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath. "When we pressure, when we send seven or when we send eight, we have to get home. We put our DBs in compromised positions and, as you know, it’s hard to cover – especially good receivers like that – in the open field. We just got to do our job on all facets."
The touchdowns UCLA scored came from 3 and 1 yard out, the first on a pass from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to receiver Kyle Philips and the second on a run by running back Brittain Brown. Several drives stalled out earlier than they should have too too, setting for field goals early and often.
Arizona State opened the second half still making big plays, this time on the ground. Running back Rachaad White rushed for a 49-yard touchdown after shedding tackles and switching fields, and a two-point conversion made it a nine-point advantage for the Sun Devils.
The Bruin offense that had been moving the ball consistently, meanwhile, was dormant after halftime, not scoring a single point.
That doesn't mean they were completely inefficient, as they made their way into Arizona State territory on multiple occasions. They Bruins punted just one time in the second half, but holdings, unnecessary roughnesses and offensive pass interferences hindered the drives that had chances to end in points.
"We have to learn how to play with emotion, not let emotion play with us," Kelly said. "I think some of (the penalties) were out of frustration and you just can’t do that against a good football team. We gave them too many freebies today, and that’s on us."
A missed field goal that would have made it a six-point deficit sailed wide left. Even closer to the end zone with the score still standing at 32-23, Kelly elected to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking the field goal, only to be stopped short when Thompson-Robinson was spun down on a run-option.
Running back Zach Charbonnet, who entered the game averaging 90 yards per game and 7.8 yards per carry, was with Thompson-Robinson in the backfield on the pivotal play that could have brought UCLA within two. Looking back on it, Thompson-Robinson said he made the wrong choice to hold onto the ball himself.
"It's 4th-and-1, we got one of the best backs in the country," Thompson-Robinson said. "Just knowing the situation, I think I should've just handed the ball off."
Arizona State put together its longest drive of the night after the turnover on downs, killing 6:43 off the clock in the fourth quarter and topping it off with a short running touchdown by White to make it 39-23.
With the game out of reach, Thompson-Robinson took sack after sack before turning it over on downs again, knocking him under the 100-yard threshold he had cleared earlier in the game.
Even with the wrong fourth down read late and those big losses down the stretch, Kelly said he liked what he saw from Thompson-Robinson on the ground.
"They weren’t designed runs, they were drop back passes where coverage-wise dictated that no one was on the quarterback," Kelly said. "I think he exploited that."
Thompson-Robinson ended the night with 235 passing yards and a touchdown on 21-of-32 passing, in addition to his 93 yards on the ground. Tight end Greg Dulcich was on the receiving end of many of those plays, racking up 136 yards on nine catches, while Philips hauled in the lone touchdown pass.
Daniels finally outdueled Thompson-Robinson after entering Saturday 0-2 against his Bruins in his collegiate career. The Sun Devils' signal-caller passed for 286 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-18 passing, all while rushing for 45 yards and leaving the Rose Bowl with a win on top of that.
Instead of taking hold of first place in the division, UCLA sits at .500 in conference play and will try to get back in the win column against Arizona on the road next week.