UCLA has consistently been one of the nation’s leaders in one category the last four seasons. The Bruins, though, won’t be boasting about it.
Since 2012, only Baylor has averaged more penalties yards per game. The Bears have averaged 80.1 yards during that span while the Bruins are at 79.8 yards.
UCLA is also the only team to finish in the top 10 in penalty yards the last three seasons. The Bruins rank seventh this season, averaging 77.1 yards per game.
“It’s frustrating to everybody involved,” Coach Jim Mora said. “Anything I think of, we’ve been trying to do as far as focusing on it and working on it in practice. I haven’t, unfortunately, been able to figure out why, at times, it jumps up and plagues us.”
It jumped up again in the Rose Bowl on Saturday. The insomniacs who stayed up saw a wild finish, with a pair of point-counterpoint drives that decided the game.
First, UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen improvised, scrambling on a 37-yard touchdown run that gave the Bruins a 27-24 lead with 1 minute 9 seconds left.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk responded by connecting with Dom Williams for a 30-yard gain and then tossed a 21-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks with three seconds left.
“We’re never done until the clock says zero,” UCLA safety Jaleel Wadood said. “We had to stop them and it didn’t happen.”
The tone was set much earlier, when UCLA reached the Cougars’ two-yard line on the Bruins’ first drive. On third and goal at the two, the Bruins had back-to-back false-start penalties. They settled for a field goal.
It became a pattern. UCLA reached the red zone five times and had only one touchdown and four field goals to show for it.
The penalties mounted. The Bruins were called for false starts six times and finished with 13 penalties for 75 yards.
A week earlier, UCLA had seven false starts against Oregon State. UCLA players accused the Beavers of mimicking Rosen’s cadence. They had the same complaint about Washington State.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone had a suggestion.
“We got to do a better job of knowing Josh’s voice and knowing our snap count,” Mazzone said.
The problem hasn’t been limited to the offensive line. Defensive back Ishmael Adams was called for holding when Washington State backup quarterback Peyton Bender was sacked on a third-and-10 play from the UCLA 14. The Cougars scored on the next play.
UCLA led the nation in penalty yards in 2012. That same season California was second. This season — the third under Coach Sonny Dykes — the Bears are the 22nd-least penalized team in the nation.
“It’s hard go to penalty-free, but we have had too many,” Mora said.
Mora exchanged words with referee Terry Leyden after the game but said that moment was not confrontational.
“I expressed some concerns,” Mora said. “It was not frustration.”
What frustrated Mora, it seemed, was the time Falk had to throw.
“How have we played seven games in the Pac-12 and opponents have only been called for holding twice on pass plays?” Mora said. “We have to figure out why. Are we not doing something right? Are we unlucky?”
UCLA did come after Falk and Bender, finishing with six sacks. The Cougars were not called for holding.
As for addressing concerns with the Pac-12 office, Mora said, “I don’t know if that is always as effective as you’d like it to be.” He said experience has taught him that “it tends to be a great source of frustration when you get the answer back rather than being a source of impactful discussion.”
Cornerback John Johnson left the game with what Mora called “neck spasms.” His status will be determined during the week.