Caleb Wilson made the cutback near the sideline, breaking away from three defenders and back into open field.
The Rose Bowl shook with excitement at the possibilities Saturday afternoon.
Wilson’s big play had given UCLA the ball deep in Stanford territory late in the fourth quarter, the tight end’s 66-yard catch and run generating the first of two chances for the Bruins to complete an improbable comeback against the team that had ruled them for a decade.
They converted neither.
A sack on one fourth down and an incompletion on another resulted in the Bruins’ 49-42 defeat, a deflating end to a season that only moments earlier had looked like it might reach a more upbeat conclusion.
“Up until the last play of the game,” UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight said, “I thought we were going to win.”
Fifteen unanswered UCLA points, including a safety and Darnay Holmes’ 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, had given the Bruins a brief lead early in the fourth quarter. They were still in position to force overtime or go for the win when they got the ball back while trailing by a touchdown with 3½ minutes left.
But their final two drives ended with the same image of dejection: Speight walking off the field with his hands on his hips after UCLA (3-9 overall, 3-6 Pac-12 Conference) finished with its worst record since going 2-7-1 in 1971.
“We had our opportunities today,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said, “we just didn’t capitalize on them.”
Stanford (7-4, 5-3) notched its 11th consecutive victory in the series thanks in large part to quarterback K.J. Costello’s career-high five touchdown passes, three of which went to receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, after the Bruins held tailback Bryce Love to 84 yards.
The Cardinal also had to withstand Speight’s career-high 466 passing yards and Wilson’s 184 receiving yards. Wilson made two plays that put the Bruins in position for a breakthrough triumph before a crowd of 38,391 that was the smallest inside their home stadium since 1997.
Wilson created palpable vibrations in the Terry Donahue Pavilion when he caught a 15-yard pass from Speight and ran 25 yards along the sideline before cutting back toward the middle of the field, eluding a pack of defenders in pursuit. The Cardinal finally dragged Wilson down at the Stanford 19-yard line.
“We were excited, for sure,” UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley, who was held to 55 yards after becoming the focus of Stanford’s defense, said of the reaction on the sideline.
The good vibes didn’t last. The drive unraveled on two incompletions and two sacks, including one on fourth down when Speight failed to throw the ball after thinking he had crossed the line of scrimmage.
“I was like, well, now I can’t throw it, I’ve got to try to run for the first down,” Speight said, “and I kind of got stuck in the heat of the moment.”
UCLA gave itself another chance after stopping Stanford and getting the ball back on its own 21-yard line with 1:03 left.
That’s when Wilson came through once more, even if the play initially sent scores of fans streaming toward the exit tunnels. Wilson appeared to fumble the ball at the end of his 19-yard catch, but officials reviewed the play and ruled that Stanford cornerback Alijah Holder had committed a targeting penalty on the play by crashing into Wilson’s head.
UCLA not only got the ball back but was given 15 additional yards thanks to the penalty, moving the Bruins to the Cardinal’s 45-yard line. But a backward march commenced when offensive lineman Justin Murphy was called for holding on first down.
Speight eventually completed a 12-yard pass to receiver Chase Cota, bringing up third and eight, before the final two passes of his college career fell incomplete. The graduate transfer was left with an empty feeling despite helping the Bruins roll up a season-high 528 yards of offense.
“Obviously when you’re able to slice them apart like that, that’s fun in the moment,” Speight said, “but if you walk off the field and you’re not victorious it doesn’t matter.”
Kelly wasn’t reflective after the end of his first season with the Bruins, checking his watch when a reporter asked about his takeaways to signify that the game was barely over. The coach did note that “we just need more weapons,” a reference to a lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Some Bruins didn’t wait to ponder a sad sendoff for those who were playing inside the Rose Bowl for the final time.
“Wish we could have gotten that win for those Seniors,” Wilson tweeted with a tearful emoji, his season over, his hopes dashed twice in the final minutes.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch