Josh Rosen, legs churning frantically, scrambled to his right, where he found a wall of Nebraska defenders. He pivoted and ran toward UCLA’s sideline, as Nebraska’s Michael Rose-Ivey closed in.
It was fourth down, late, and if UCLA was to have a chance to pull out a win in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday night despite Nebraska’s physical dominance, it was here. Rosen squared his shoulders and hurled the ball, just as he was crushed by Rose-Ivey.
“I threw up a desperation play, trying to make something happen,” Rosen said.
Nebraska’s Chris Jones intercepted the pass in the end zone.
Rosen was one of many UCLA players in pain after the game. Nebraska had bruised and bullied the Bruins, ending the worst season for UCLA (8-5) since Coach Jim Mora’s first season, in 2012.
As Nebraska’s offense studied tape of UCLA leading up to Saturday’s Foster Farms Bowl, it grew more and more encouraged.
UCLA’s run defense? Nebraska could work with that.
“We watched a lot of film,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “Liked what we saw.”
A simple game plan was formed: Nebraska was going to run the ball right at the Bruins and dare them to prove it wrong.
Nebraska ran for 326 yards, becoming the fifth opponent to eclipse 200 yards rushing against UCLA. The Bruins ran for just 67 yards.
“We need to get bigger, obviously,” Mora said. “We need to get stronger, obviously.”
Nebraska defensive back Chris Jones intercepts a fourth-down pass intended for UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker III late in the fourth quarter of the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey hits UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen as he delivers a fourth-down pass late in the game. The pass was intercepted in the end zone.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA kicker Ka’mi Fairbairn (15) watches a missed field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Bruins defensive back Adrius Pickett breaks up a pass intended for Cornhuskers receiver Jordan Westkamp.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Bruins running back Paul Perkins is brought down by the Nebraska defense in the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Cornhuskers running back Devin Ozigbo picks up yards against UCLA during a run in the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Nebraska receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown against UCLA cornerback Ishmael Adams in the third quarter during the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 26.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. fumbles the ball during a six-yard run in the second quarter. UCLA defensive back Jaleel Wadood would recover the ball.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Bruins running back Nate Starks beats Cornhuskers linebacker Dedrick Young on a 26-yard scoring pass play in the second quarter for a 21-7 lead.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Bruins running back Paul Perkins fumbles the ball out of bounds after he’s tackled by Nebraska defensive back Antonio Reed in the first quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker III catches a 60-yard touchdown pass against Nebraska defensive back Chris Jones in the second quarter for a 14-7 lead.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA receiver Thomas Duarte is tackled at the one-yard line by Nebraska defensive back Nate Gerry on a 22-yard pass play to set up the Bruins’ first score.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA running back Paul Perkins crosses the goal line to open the scoring in the Foster Farms Bowl.(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
Bruins running back Paul Perkins (24) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown against Nebraska in the first quarter Saturday.(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
Bruins linebacker Aaron Wallace pressures Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. during a pass attempt in the first half.(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
Bruins Coach Jim Mora gives encouragement to his players before playing Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA Coach Jim Mora greets a fan before the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Nebraska’s touchdown drives were methodical, boring and unstoppable. In the first half: 75 yards, 12 plays, two passes; 75 yards, four plays, one pass; 73 yards, eight plays, one pass.
The first drive of the second half at least offered some variety. The touchdown came when Stanley Morgan Jr. made a one-handed catch. It was Nebraska’s only passing touchdown. And it was just the second pass of the drive.
The Cornhuskers ran 62 times and passed just 19. On the one possession Nebraska passed more than it ran, it went three and out.
No Cornhuskers rusher ran for more than 100 yards. But six had at least 20, led by Devine Ozigbo, with 87, and Armstrong, who ran for 76.
“When you can do that, life goes better everywhere,” Nebraska Coach Mike Riley said of the running game.
One minute into the fourth quarter, after Armstrong took a read-option on third down for a touchdown, Nebraska had scored 30 unanswered points. UCLA trailed, 37-21.
As effective as Nebraska’s ground attack was, UCLA’s was just as toothless. The Bruins had just six healthy offensive linemen. Before the game it lost two starting guards, one to early entry in the NFL draft, another to injury. The Bruins started walk-on Cristian Garcia at guard. Caleb Benenoch, typically the right tackle, shifted to guard.
Paul Perkins rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown. The next closest back, Nate Starks, ran twice for six yards.
The game, then, rested with the freshman, Rosen.
The last game he’d played, Rosen turned the ball over three times in a loss to USC.
How would he respond?
On the day after the USC loss, according to Mora, Rosen showed up to Mora’s house unannounced, and the two sat together on the couch.
“We’ll be all right,” Rosen said, according to Mora.
Rosen showed command of the offense early. He completed his first five passes, including a convincing play-action fake and pass to Thomas Duarte that set up one-yard touchdown run by Perkins.
In the second quarter, Rosen hit Kenneth Walker III 45 yards downfield and he didn’t even have to slow down, cruising 15 more yards for a 60-yard touchdown catch.
UCLA’s next drive ended with Rosen’s well-timed swing pass to running back Starks, 26 yards for a touchdown.
The early scores had put UCLA ahead, 21-7, and Rosen would finish with 319 yards and three touchdowns, to two interceptions. But Rosen barely held the ball as Nebraska began its punishing rushing campaign. The Cornhuskers held the ball for more than 38 minutes in the game.
UCLA clung to life. Early in the fourth quarter, Rosen led a quick scoring drive ending in a nine-yard pass to Jordan Payton. A two-point conversion drew UCLA within eight.
Two possessions later, Rosen led UCLA into Nebraska territory. But, facing fourth down, the makeshift offensive line could not hold.
Nebraska took over and ran out the clock.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand