Column: UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen looked his age in close win over BYU
UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, finally, looked every bit of age 18.
He looked it on the Rose Bowl field Saturday night, against a team of grown-ups from Brigham Young, throwing loose passes into tight coverage.
He looked it on the two first-half interceptions he gifted to BYU middle linebacker Harvey Langi, and on the third he threw to defensive back Kai Nacua.
Rosen looked like every freckle on his student ID card when he sneaked into the interview room at the Rose Bowl. It was around midnight, after UCLA had secured a 24-23 victory in which Rosen was more an impediment than the catalyst.
He looked different than he did against Virginia or Nevada Las Vegas, when tight spirals left his hand from a tall, sturdy, power-pocket position. His postgame BYU posture was less confident and revealed a next-level truth he had to learn on his own.
He was so much older then — he’s younger than that now.
“I probably played one of the worst games of my career,” he said after the third game of his college career. “And we still beat a top-20 team in the country.”
Rosen sounded less like the next Andrew Luck and more like someone who just got away with something.
He went from being preposterously hyped as a Heisman Trophy candidate after a near-perfect debut two Saturdays ago to a quarterback asked to get out of the way on the final, game-winning drive as tailback Nate Starks ran four times for 60 yards.
Rosen completed one pass on the last drive, for nine yards.
He deserved credit for doing, after halftime, no more harm.
“Second half I was really proud of him,” Noel Mazzone, UCLA’s offensive coordinator, said after the game. “First half, I wanted to strangle him a couple of times.”
Rosen looked baby-faced young on a day when the rest of college football seemed to age in dog years.
Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer’s salt-and-pepper hair needed more men’s product between the third and fourth quarters of his team’s seven-point win against Northern Illinois.
Meyer started the season with three superstar quarterbacks but couldn’t seem to find a single good one against a team from the Mid-American Conference.
You should have seen the crow’s feet forming in the corners of Miami Coach Al Golden’s eyes as his team was blowing a 33-10 lead against Nebraska, only to pull out a win in overtime.
And Golden was the winning coach. What little remained of first-year Nebraska Coach Mike Riley’s hair could be found in his cap after his team suffered its second loss this season on the final play.
There were no dances with Dorian Grays on this day, in this sport. Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn has gone, in two weeks, from genius to Geritol.
Nick Saban earned a few more deep, forehead creases after his Alabama team suffered a second straight defeat to Mississippi, something the experts said would never happen.
Mississippi Coach Hugh Freeze might have felt comfortable with a 43-24 fourth-quarter lead, which sent scores of Crimson Tide fans stampeding to the exits. Yet even he was left chewing his clipboard after Alabama staged a frenetic late rally.
There is nothing better than the hard lessons learned after victory, as opposed to defeat.
Rosen’s performance against BYU was the day everyone saw coming — but did not cost UCLA any hide.
BYU did the strategic and necessary things to force Rosen into a night in which he completed only 11 of 23 passes for 106 yards.
UCLA Coach Jim Mora said he thought Rosen had trouble seeing over the top of BYU’s tall linemen and linebackers.
BYU Coach Bronco Mendenhall said the Cougars’ game plan was to force Rosen into third-down situations in which he had to make quick decisions against blitz packages.
“I think he’s talented,” Mendenhall said. “I think he’s skilled.”
Mendenhall stopped short of saying the obvious: “I think he’s young.”
There was no reported UCLA panic at a halftime in which BYU led, 10-3.
Rosen said Mora even sought him out and said, “Don’t even think I’m going to pull you!”
Rosen did a much better job managing the game in the second half.
“My confidence is in my teammates,” he said. “I got the ball to my playmakers.”
Rosen did contribute one beautiful pass, a 19-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown strike to Jordan Payton that cut the BYU lead to 20-17.
After BYU stretched the lead to six with a field goal, Rosen served as primary facilitator on the seven-play, 80-yard drive to the game-winning score.
He then stood as bystander, with the rest of the offense, as linebacker Myles Jack intercepted a Tanner Mangum pass to halt a possible third straight miracle finish for BYU.
The odds still say that Rosen’s inexperience will cost UCLA a loss or two along the way.
That it didn’t happen Saturday kept the promise of a championship season alive.
It also felt like a bullet dodged.
“He thinks you can get away with some things that you cannot get away with at this level,” Mora said of Rosen. “While I don’t like that, I also think it’s an amazing sign of his confidence.”
Everyone knew Rosen was going to face his comeuppance.
“I knew it was coming,” Mazzone said. “But I was hoping it might come in, like, three years from now.”
Rosen and UCLA ducked out of the Rose Bowl with a quality victory that moved them to 3-0, and up the national polls.
The Bruins’ kid quarterback learned a few things the hard way — this time they were free.
“I made some pretty immature mistakes,” he admitted.
Nonconference, though, was the easy part. UCLA starts Pac-12 Conference play next week at Arizona, defending champions of the South Division.
Rosen needs to keep absorbing and processing at a pace beyond his years.
And this truth has not changed: If UCLA is going to get where it wants to go, Rosen can’t get older fast enough.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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