Stefan Flintoft took the snap and aimed his body toward the right side of the field. He punted the ball to the right and looked to the right.
Nearly every one of his UCLA teammates went left.
Flintoft appeared to realize what would happen next after jogging several yards downfield early in the first quarter Saturday at the Coliseum. He momentarily held out his arms in disbelief as USC’s Michael Pittman Jr. fielded the punt with only Flintoft and UCLA’s Josh Wariboko-Alali standing between Pittman and the end zone.
“I hit it, I looked up and out of the corner of my eye I just saw a sea of red and blue go way left and I kind of knew what was going on right away,” Flintoft said after the Bruins’ 28-23 loss.
The rest of the Bruins seemed to be duped by USC’s Ajene Harris, who pantomimed catching the punt as a horde of Bruins surrounded him. Pittman had already begun sprinting up the sideline with the ball by the time it became apparent that the only tackle that needed to be made was on the other side of the field.
“We picked the wrong time to have our right gunner collapse to the ball and not have awareness of the guy back there,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said, referring to Pittman. “Those are things that we work on, things that we talk about. You could see it setting up from the sideline but unfortunately you couldn’t get it conveyed to the players as the play was developing.”
Neither Wariboko-Alali nor Flintoft came close to stopping Pittman on his way to a 72-yard return for a touchdown that gave the Trojans the game’s first points.
Flintoft said the direction of his punts is predetermined, but he’s responsible for relaying where the punt is headed after it leaves his foot in case it heads the opposite way.
“It’s a big game and it’s loud so it’s hard to relay those calls sometimes,” Flintoft said, “but we try our best and just that one play it just didn’t happen.”
It was the first of a few special-teams breakdowns that plagued the Bruins.
They also allowed USC’s Velus Jones to return a kickoff for 59 yards and appeared to have trouble with the snap before J.J. Molson’s low-flying 47-yard field-goal attempt fell short in the second quarter.
UCLA’s blunders were not confined to special teams.
The Bruins also had two penalties that wiped out significant offensive plays in the first half. The first came on right tackle Andre James, who was flagged for being an ineligible receiver downfield. That penalty negated a 53-yard pass from quarterback Josh Rosen to receiver Jordan Lasley.
An illegal block on left guard Najee Toran wiped out what would have been a 21-yard touchdown run by Bolu Olorunfunmi on the first play of the second quarter. The Bruins ended up with zero points on the drive after Molson’s subsequent field-goal try was short.
UCLA tight end Austin Roberts, receiver Theo Howard and fullback Giovanni Gentosi all dropped passes in the first half.
There will be blood
Student journalists from the Daily Trojan defeated their counterparts from the Daily Bruin on Friday in the resumption of the Blood Bowl, the two-hand touch football game involving the staffs from both newspapers that had last been played in 2013.
Touchdowns were abundant but details were sketchy. Ollie Jung and Julia Poe, co-sports editors of the Daily Trojan, said they were unsure of the score because nearly every play seemed to go for a touchdown.
“There wasn’t too much defense being played,” Jung said. “By the end we were even playing just one down to score and we were scoring.”
The USC students prevailed after multimedia editor Jonathan Xue caught the winning touchdown pass from deputy sports editor Trevor Denton.
“He was a star,” Poe said of Denton.
The Blood Bowl has included some famous participants, including David Kahn, co-sports editor of the Daily Bruin who went on to become president of basketball operations for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 photographer and receiver for the Daily Trojan who went on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher in Major League Baseball.
Safety Jaleel Wadood returned from the sore neck that had sidelined him last week against Arizona State. He made a big play late in the second quarter when he intercepted a fourth-down pass that USC quarterback Sam Darnold floated into coverage.
Defensive end Jaelan Phillips missed a second consecutive game while recovering from a concussion.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch