Jedd Fisch repeated the mantra when things were at their bleakest.
Drive down and score. Drive down and score.
Trust the process, the UCLA offensive coordinator also told his players. Run the plays we call. Execute them the best you can.
Josh Rosen was listening at a time when it would have been easy for the Bruins quarterback just to nod and do things his way.
“The score was a lot to a little at one point,” Fisch said, “but he just said, ‘Hey, we’ll keep going. You call it, I’ll execute it.’ ”
The harmony between mentor and protege in their first game together Sunday night at the Rose Bowl produced both a 34-point deficit and the greatest comeback in Bruins history. All that ultimately mattered for UCLA was that it emerged on the desired side of a wild 45-44 victory over Texas A&M, a final score that was still producing double-takes a day later.
“lol aye last night still don’t feel real,” UCLA safety Jaleel Wadood tweeted Monday.
UCLA’s 38-10 halftime deficit was easy to authenticate. It came courtesy of a fast, aggressive Texas A&M defense and a UCLA offense that seemed incapable of delivering any significant counterpunches. Meanwhile, the Bruins’ plan to utilize an extra defensive back against A&M’s spread offense backfired as they were gashed for one big play after another.
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott, addressing reporters in the back of the Rose Bowl press box at halftime, mused about his constituents going undefeated over the weekend “until today,” prompting a question about whether he was conceding a UCLA loss.
Hope also lingered in the Bruins’ locker room. A huge New England Patriots fan, Fisch brought up his favorite NFL team’s furious second-half rally from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime during the most recent Super Bowl.
Of course, things never looked quite as hopeless for the Patriots as they did for the Bruins when Daniel LaCamera’s 48-yard field goal sunk UCLA into a 44-10 hole with 4:08 left in the third quarter.
A fortuitous parallel emerged when Bruins tailback Soso Jamabo ran for a six-yard touchdown with 2:06 left in the third quarter — the exact same point in the game that Tom Brady had sparked New England’s comeback with a touchdown pass. But Jamabo’s score initially looked like it would serve only to pretty up a lopsided defeat, the Bruins still trailing by 27 points.
UCLA coach Jim Mora later acknowledged he didn’t think his team could come all the way back before receiver Darren Andrews followed with back-to-back touchdown catches to pull UCLA within 44-31 midway through the fourth quarter. The second score was a gift after Texas A&M nickel back Deshawn Capers-Smith allowed a pass that Rosen had floated into coverage to slip through his fingers and into Andrews’ hands on the way to a 42-yard touchdown.
“I saw that the ball was short so at the time, I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m about to have to tackle him, it’s about to be a pick,’ ” Andrews said. “I just focused on the ball. I saw the ball go through his hands and I was ready for it.”
Texas A&M’s offense, which had been so unstoppable in the first half, began to sputter once quarterback Nick Starkel departed in the third quarter with an apparent ankle injury. His replacement Kellen Mond, a true freshman playing in his first college game, struggled to sustain drives, completing only two of 14 passes in the second half.
Mond faced a UCLA defense that shed the extra defensive back after halftime, reverting to its base 4-3 formation and forcing its defensive backs into man-to-man coverage without a safety net.
Bruins defensive coordinator Tom Bradley also sensed a change in attitude among the teams.
“You could see that Texas A&M had kind of thought that the game was over,” Bradley said, “and our kids never quit.”
Belief ran strong in UCLA safety Adarius Pickett. Remembering a weakness that special teams coordinator Scott White had spotted in Texas A&M’s field-goal protection package earlier in the week, Pickett broke through to get a piece of a 43-yard attempt with 4:41 left that fell short.
Rosen benefited from more good fortune when he tried to throw away a pass with a defender in his face and the ball found UCLA receiver Theo Howard in the front of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown with 3:10 left. His team’s deficit reduced to 44-38, Fisch said he felt the Bruins could get the touchdown they needed to complete the comeback.
“I think it’s worked like maybe once or twice,” Rosen said.
Rosen pantomimed the motion of throwing the ball to the ground before pulling it back and finding Jordan Lasley for a 10-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone with 43 seconds left.
One defensive stop later the miracle comeback was complete, the Bruins having staged the second-biggest rally in the history of the FBS. Only Michigan State’s 36-point comeback victory against Northwestern in 2006 was bigger.
Rosen threw for 292 of his career-high 491 yards and all four of his touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“That’s a good quarter,” Fisch quipped.
Mora traced the roots of the rally to early January, when players returned from winter break and the festering disappointment of last season’s 4-8 record.
“Every day since,” Mora said, “I’ve just seen an attitude and a camaraderie, a sense of purpose, a brotherhood that started to form.”
It was an auspicious start to the relationship between Rosen and Fisch, which hadn’t produced much besides heartache through the first three quarters.
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, right, celebrates at the conclusion of a 45-44 comeback victory over Texas A&M.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen walks off the field after engineering a 45-44 comeback victory over Texas A&M.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Members of UCLA football team begin celebrating their 45-44 comeback victory over Texas A&M in the closing moments of the game.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the UCLA football team walk off the field after a 45-44 comeback victory over Texas A&M.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA head coach Jim Mora walks off the field following a 45-44 comeback victory over Texas A&M.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen scrambles out of the pocket against Texas A&M in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA wide receiver Darren Andrews breaks a tackle by Texas A&M defensive back Kemah Siverand to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Bruins receivers Caleb Wilson, left, and Darren Andrews celebrate Andrews’ touchdown catch against Texas A&M in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA tight end Caleb Wilson makes a key catch against Texas A&M defensive back Armani Watts in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA defensive lineman Jaelan Philips and his Bruin teammates celebrate their 45-44 comeback victory.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA defenders Jaelan Phillips (15) and Rick Wade (90) bring Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond down for a loss in the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA defenders Jaelen Philips, left, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson celebrate after sacking Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA wide receiver Jordan Lasley is congratulated by teammates after scoring the tying touchdown against Texas A&M in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA wide receiver Theo Howard (14) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Texas A&M in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA tight end Caleb Wilson fights for extra yardage after making a catch against Texas A&M in the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA running back Bolu Olurunfunmi is brought down by Texas A&M defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA defense tries to block a field goal attempt by Texas A&M kicker Braden Mann in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is sacked by Texas A&M linebacker Tyler Dodson in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams gets airborne trying to get extra yardage against UCLA in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA wide receiver Jordan Lasley makes a catch against Texas A&M free saftey Keldrick Carper in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams turns the corner for a long touchdown run against UCLA in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams is congratulated by teammate Kalvin Cline after a long touchdown run against UCLA in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen throws downfield against Texas A&M in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Said Rosen: “Breaking in a new offense, it took a little time to get rolling.”
Said Fisch: “It did take some time, but with that time came some efficiency there in that fourth quarter.”
Rosen’s heroics allowed the Bruins to momentarily shrug off their inability to run the ball (2.5 yards per carry) or stop the Aggies’ ground game (6.1 yard per carry) until Mond was tackled a yard short of the spot he needed to reach on fourth down with 20 seconds left.
UCLA could even forgive its latest in a series of dropped passes going back to last season. Two plays after bobbling a pass near the first-down marker, Lasley pulled in the touchdown that completed the most improbable rally in UCLA history.
“You know, it is what it is,” Rosen said. “I mean, maybe if he had caught that we wouldn’t have won, so I’m happy he dropped it.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch