UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen lives up to the hype with a fast start

High above the Rose Bowl, UCLA’s only Heisman Trophy winner watched the team’s current quarterback founder for nearly three quarters in the season opener.

Gary Beban was ready to vacate his suite inside the Terry Donahue Pavilion before halftime with Josh Rosen and the Bruins getting crushed, but there was a guest to consider. It would have been rude for Beban to abandon his business associate from Texas A&M, the team that had built a lead that would reach 34 points

By the fourth quarter, both observers had become riveted by the same player. The once-pitiable Rosen completed pass after pass, sparking a furious rally.

When a Rosen pass sailed through a defensive back’s hands and into those of receiver Darren Andrews for a 42-yard touchdown, victory still was a longshot. The Bruins trailed by 13 points with a little more than eight minutes to play.

Beban’s guest turned toward him and made a prediction.

“He said, ‘This game’s over,’ ” Beban said this week. “ ‘You’re going to win.’ ”

Rosen made sure of it, throwing two more touchdown passes to secure UCLA’s 45-44 victory that stood as the second-biggest comeback in college football history.

Rosen to the rescue has become a theme over UCLA’s first two games. He ignited the rally against the Aggies with four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and followed it up Saturday by leading the Bruins to touchdowns on their first seven drives against Hawaii, save for a one-play possession preceding halftime.

The numbers Rosen has rolled up are producing some early-season hype about him possibly giving the No. 25 Bruins (2-0) their first Heisman winner since Beban took home college football’s most prestigious award 50 years ago.

Over his last five quarters, Rosen has completed 41 of 51 passes for 620 yards and nine touchdowns with no interceptions. Rosen’s nine touchdown passes over his first two games are tied for first in the nation, his 410 yards passing rank third and his 185.2 passing efficiency ranks 12th.

“I’m playing the best football I’ve ever played,” Rosen said Wednesday. “I feel more confident than I ever have. I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s going into it, but I just know that on the field right now with the players around me and the coaches around me, I’m playing the best football I have in my life.”

A player once anointed “Chosen Rosen” is living up to the billing after two seasons filled with frustration. Rosen was superb as a freshman, but the Bruins cratered with three losses in their final four games on the way to an 8-5 record.

Rosen was just starting to find his rhythm as a sophomore, passing for a combined 750 yards and five touchdowns against Arizona and Arizona State, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury late in the game against the Sun Devils. Rosen sat out the final six games and UCLA finished 4-8.

He has not looked like someone who had not played in nearly 11 months after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder.

“I think he just got his mojo back,” said Andrews, who has caught five of Rosen’s touchdown passes, “playing with more confidence and he believes that he can make any throw.”

Rosen said the lengthy layoff changed his approach, making him focus more on daily improvement.

“The only day that’s more important than tomorrow is today,” Rosen said of his mind-set.

The usually voluble quarterback shrouded himself in anonymity leading up to the season, declining interview requests with the exception of a Bleacher Report story in which he questioned the compatibility of college sports and academics. Rosen busied himself mastering the playbook of new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and leading player-run practices.

His dedication impressed coaches even more so than the production that led to two season-opening victories.

“Really more than just his first two games, it’s just watching him mature and watching his mind-set shaping into that of a really serious, committed player,” coach Jim Mora said. “He’s always been competitive and he’s always been very smart, but like putting it all together and it’s really been something we’ve seen from the start of spring and he just has to continue to grow.”

Much of that development has resulted from the fast-sprouting relationship between Rosen and Fisch, both in the film room and on the field. Touchdown passes are critiqued just as heavily as incomplete passes in an effort to produce constant improvement.

“We’ve never talked about him arriving, we’ve never talked about, ‘This is the best you can play,’ or anything like that,” Fisch said. “I mean, he might complete a touchdown pass, but he could have had a mental error and a misread. So we judge him on every play, we don’t just crown him, and we just keep going and keep teaching him and keep trying to make him better.”

Fisch said Rosen has improved his reads to the point where he knows where the third and fourth options are on a play. That has allowed Rosen to move through his progressions more fluidly and find the open player more quickly.

It has also given Rosen the confidence to fling passes on plays where he can’t see beyond the linemen but trusts that the receiver will be in the right spot to catch the ball.

“You just have to be supremely confident in what you’re doing,” Rosen said. “Even if it’s the wrong thing, you have to make the mistake at 100%.”

Rosen acknowledged how quickly momentum can change, mentioning UCLA’s 4-0 start his freshman year that fizzled over the next three months. He really only needs to go back two weeks to the season opener against Texas A&M.

“UCLA could watch the first three quarters of that game every week to see what not to do, and that includes Josh,” Beban said. “I’m not sure he was getting his feet set and for whatever reason — it could have been the pass rush and all the other things — and yet, then in the fourth quarter all of a sudden he is setting up quickly, he’s moving his feet and stepping toward where he’s throwing compared to what he was doing before.

“Who knows why those things happen during one part of the game [versus another], and I think that’s why you find great quarterbacks today working on their technique as much as they are their arms. Getting set and getting prepared to throw is as important as throwing the ball, and why it wasn’t there for three quarters and for a quarter it is and then you see the results.”

Only, of course, if you stick around for the finish.


Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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