Column: Bruins fans witnessed their worst nightmare. And then, the greatest comeback in UCLA history

PASADENA, CALIF. - SEP. 3, 2017. UCLA defenders Jaelen Philips, left, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt
UCLA defenders Jaelen Philips, left, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson celebrate after sacking Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond in the fourth quarter Sept. 3.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The game was over. The coach was cooked. The team was in tatters. The season was finished almost before it started.

With two minutes left in the third quarter of the season opener at a boo-wracked Rose Bowl on Sunday night, UCLA trailed Texas A&M by 34 points.

Thirty-four points.

It was a humiliation, everything everyone feared about the Bruins, their most dreaded flaws, their most ominous mistakes, their worst nightmare.


Then, with the flick and flick and flick and flick of a Josh Rosen wrist, it became their wildest dream.

UCLA won. The Bruins really won. Honestly, they won. No, seriously, they won.

If you drove out of the Arroyo Seco early because you were baking in heat and frustration, you’re really boiling now, because — have we written this already? — UCLA won, 45-44, in a result that still bears repeating.

Thirty-four points down, and they won.


It was the greatest comeback in UCLA history and the second-biggest comeback in FBS history. They scored touchdowns on their final five drives of the game, ended it with Rosen finding Jordan Lasley in the corner of the end zone for a 10-yard scoring pass with 43 seconds left, then stormed the Rose Bowl field in disbelief.

A night previously dominated by dazed stares ended with Bruins dancing everywhere — in the stands, under the goal posts, and then finally through the tunnel ringed by fans who seemingly had been screaming for 30 minutes straight.

“There is no fear in him. He’s not afraid. He doesn’t quit.”
Jim Mora, on quarterback Josh Rosen

Longtime UCLA observers had never seen anything like it. They’ll be talking about this one a long time, about the night UCLA was completely awful and amazingly spectacular and forever memorable.

“It’s one game, it’s one game, it’s one game,” coach Jim Mora said, futilely pleading to find perspective amid the madness. “But there are so many great lessons to be learned.”

Lesson One: Rosen can be magic.

He promised it. He’s shown flashes of it. During his previous two star-crossed years as a Bruin, he’d teased it. But in changing the atmosphere in the sweat-soaked stadium in the fourth quarter Sunday like an unstoppably cool breeze, Rosen became it.


“He just started ripping it,” Mora said.

He ripped his play away from the recent controversy over his comments about the difficult plight of college athletics. He ripped himself apart from all his previous college hijinx, from the dorm room hot tub to the crazy tweets.

Rosen finally made it all about football, and in doing so, he ripped the heart out of the Aggies defense.

In the fourth quarter alone, with no room for error, Rosen threw for 292 yards and four touchdowns. In all, he went 35 for 59 for a career-high 491 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in his first game since injuring his shoulder last October

“We were an inch from losing this game 10 times,” Rosen said, and that inch often separated him from calamity.

He was chased and he connected. He was hit and he connected. He was falling on his back and he connected. He was pluck and luck and mostly just plain great at the end of a night during which he easily could have quit. In those final five drives, five times he connected on third down and once on fourth down.

“There is no fear in him,” Mora said. “He’s not afraid. He doesn’t quit.”

Rosen found an emerging receiver in former USC walk-on Caleb Wilson (203 yards), old friends in Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley (247 yards combined), and dramatic little wins with nearly every snap.


“He has really stepped up everything about him,” Mora said. “People focus too often on some of the things that he’s said in the past. He’s become a man, and he’s starting to act like man.”

The luck came with 8:12 remaining, when Rosen threw a ball that somehow soared directly through the hands of Aggies defensive back Deshawn Capers-Smith and into the hands of Andrews for a 42-yard touchdown to push the Bruins to within 13 points.

The pluck came at the end of the next drive, when Rosen flung the ball off back foot with Aggies defenders on top of him in an attempt to throw the ball through the end zone and out of bounds … yet somehow managed to sail it into the arms of Theo Howard for a 16-yard touchdown pass.

“At a certain point you’re not really looking at the scoreboard anymore, you’re just kind of like, ‘We’ve just got to put our head down and just play football,’ ” Rosen said.

Rosen’s entire night was encapsulated with 43 seconds left when he deftly faked a spike and lofted the final touchdown pass 10 yards into the arms of Lasley in the corner of a suddenly beaten-down end zone. He celebrated with as much amazement as the roaring fans around him, running off the field with his hands wrapped around his head in disbelief, then he pulled off and crazily swung that helmet as he jumped into his teammates’ arms.

That image will remain with him throughout what is surely his final UCLA season, with another image now looming in the background. Yes, yes, that stiff-armed form of the Heisman Trophy. In what felt like 10 minutes, Rosen went from knocked silly to legitimate Heisman candidate.

“I’m happy how it went,” Rosen said in a understatement as big as his arm. “Hopefully we can play a little better off the bat.”

Oh yeah, that. The Aggies steamrolled the Bruins in gaining a 31-3 lead in the first half, an edge that became 44-10 late in the third quarter before the Bruins began their comeback

Mora, who needs to contend for a Pac-12 title this year after two declining seasons to ensure his job safetly, already had been fired on social media. After three quarters, Rosen had completed less than half of his passes and had yet to throw for a touchdown. They both found at least temporary redemption in a nationally televised game in which their timing, once awful, couldn’t be better.

“My career at UCLA, a lot of times the chips didn’t fall in our favor, and I think it’s time that it finally did,” Rosen said.

Oh, this time, how they did fall, straight out of the heavens, you had to see it to believe it. The Bruins won. They really won.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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