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UCLA Sports

Bruins defense has just enough for a rebuff

UCLA was in an unusual, and seemingly frightening, situation against Colorado late Saturday night.

The Bruins needed their defense to make a stop to win.

It was the same defense that had been repeatedly flattened through the season’s first month but was making some significant and necessary strides against the Buffaloes at the Rose Bowl.

Some redemption came when UCLA held the Buffaloes without a miracle finish, preserving a 27-23 victory after Colorado quarterback Steven Montez’s final desperation pass sailed out the back of the end zone.

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There was also a bit of salvation for UCLA’s much-maligned running game after tailback Soso Jamabo ran for seven yards on third and six to help sustain a drive in which the Bruins (3-2 overall, 1-1 Pac-12 Conference) burned most of the game’s final 6 1/2 minutes.

“We made an emphasis just to make it our best run block of the whole season and it was the biggest play of the season and we made it,” said Jamabo, whose run allowed J.J. Molson provided some insurance with a 31-yard field goal with 26 seconds left.

A slew of game balls also belonged to the UCLA defense.

After allowing Montez to cut outside and stampede his way for a 37-yard run, UCLA’s defense held firm. Defensive end Rick Wade stuffed Phillip Lindsay for a two-yard loss and the Bruins forced Montez to throw the ball away on third down after he twice eluded potential sacks but went down hard on the play after absorbing a vicious hit.

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Colorado kicker James Stefanou’s 33-yard field goal shaved UCLA’s lead to one point in what amounted to an elimination game for the Bruins in the Pac-12 South Division after they had dropped their conference opener.

UCLA held Colorado (3-2, 0-2) to 434 total yards of offense, including 191 on the ground. It was major progress for a defense that entered the game giving up an average of 524.8 yards and 307.5 rushing yards.

“We felt a certain energy and that’s what we’ve been looking for coming off of last year,” said Bruins linebacker Kenny Young, who made a team-high 12 tackles, including one for a two-yard loss, and helped snuff out a fake field-goal attempt. “You know, we had some ballers last year, and this year, we’re just trying to keep that energy.”

UCLA held Colorado (3-2, 0-2) to 434 total yards of offense, including 191 on the ground. It was major progress.

Not that it was perfect. UCLA, wearing all white outfits including matching helmets for the first time since 2011 as part of a “White Out,” suffered through some sloppiness early in the fourth quarter. The Bruins were called for a delay of game and then what appeared to be a premature snap tumbled to the ground before quarterback Josh Rosen picked up the ball and eventually flung it out of bounds.

After Rosen’s third-down pass fell incomplete, Molson’s 33-yard field goal gave the Bruins a 24-20 lead with 9:48 left in the game.

Rosen completed 28 of 45 passes for 372 yards and one touchdown with one interception.

Montez repeatedly fooled UCLA’s defense on runs, including a fourth-and-one play midway through the third quarter in which he kept the ball and cut outside for a 25-yard run. Lindsay later ran for a two-yard touchdown that pulled the Buffaloes to within 21-17.

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UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said Montez’s rushing success was partially a result of unscouted looks.

“We had practiced that quarterback read that they did a little different than they did it tonight,” Bradley said.

Rosen gave the ball back to Colorado shortly thereafter when an underthrown pass intended for Darren Andrews was intercepted by safety Evan Worthington.

Colorado drove deep into UCLA territory before Bruins defensive back Colin Samuel helped break up a pass in the end zone on third down. Stefanou’s 33-yard field goal shaved UCLA’s lead to 21-20 late in the third quarter.

But UCLA’s defense made an impressive stop late in the first half after giving Colorado a major assist. The Bruins were called for an illegal substitution that involved having 12 players on the field coming out of back-to-back timeouts, turning the Buffaloes’ third-and-short situation into a first down. On the next play, UCLA cornerback Denzel Fisher was called for the first of his three defensive holding penalties, leading to another Colorado first down.

The Bruins then stiffened, forcing the Buffaloes to line up for a short field goal. It was a fake. Colorado holder T.J. Patterson took the snap and rose to throw a swing pass intended for Stefanou that fell incomplete with UCLA linebacker Kenny Young draped all over Stefanou.

“That’s just being prepared,” Young said. “They’ve done that a billion times in practice on me so it just was a reaction, man, if anything.”

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UCLA showed that some secrets are revealed in training camp when the Bruins unveiled a flea-flicker, the same play they had memorably run on their new practice field in early August. Rosen took the backward flip and completed a 46-yard pass to Jordan Lasley that initially appeared to go for a touchdown.

“Josh did an unbelievable job on that play because they brought a free-safety blitz — which I was not counting on —unblocked,” UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “And Josh caught the flea-flicker and then stepped up in the pocket and then threw a dime. That is as good as it gets.”

Officials reviewed the play and gave the Bruins the ball at the one-yard line. Tailback Jalen Starks dove through a scrum of players two plays later for a one-yard touchdown that gave UCLA a 14-10 lead midway through the second quarter.

UCLA’s 75-yard scoring drive had been unusual for another reason: The usually pass-heavy Bruins ran the ball on five consecutive plays, including one carry by Andrews.

The Bruins’ defense appeared to be on the verge of a stop early in the game when cornerback Darnay Holmes smashed into Lindsay on a short pass, appearing to leave Colorado facing a fourth and eight.

But officials reviewed the play and determined that Holmes had been guilty of targeting, leading to his ejection and a first down for the Buffaloes. On the next play, Montez connected with Lindsay on a 21-yard touchdown pass.

Holmes became the fourth UCLA player ejected this season, joining linebacker Josh Woods, defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa and safety Adarius Pickett. Fisher played cornerback in Holmes’ absence and Jordan Lasley returned kickoffs.

UCLA defensive end Jaelan Phillips, who missed a second consecutive game with an ankle injury, immediately weighed in on social media, tweeting his disagreement with the call.

Lasley received an unsportsmanlike penalty in the third quarter for a late hit on Colorado defensive back Afolabi Laguda, who went down on the play and had to be helped off the field.

“I didn’t hear the whistle blow, I was just playing hard,” Lasley said. “I guess I want to apologize to No. 1 [Laguda’s number]. I wasn’t trying to be a vicious player or play maliciously. I was just trying to play football really hard and I apologize for that.”

UCLA now gets a week off before playing Arizona, a team Mora is 5-0 against since arriving in Westwood.

“You can take a sigh of relief but you can’t act like it’s all fixed,” Mora said of his team’s mind-set after its first conference victory. “There’s a lot of work to do. … You have to be just as critical of everything that you did as a coach and teaching and of calls that you made and the way that it was played as if we had just gotten the dog kicked out of us. That’s the only way you make improvement. Our guys understand that and I love that about them. There’s a thirst to get better.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch


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