Column: UCLA can’t escape its past in stunning loss to No. 7 Stanford, 22-13

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen walks off the field after fumbling the ball away on the final play of the game against Stanford on Sept. 24.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It happened again. How could it happen again?

For all but the final two minutes Saturday night, UCLA did everything in its power to break an eight-game losing streak to a Stanford team that has long occupied its nightmares.

Then it happened again. Somehow, it happened again.

Stanford got tough. UCLA got tentative. Stanford found focus. UCLA lost control.

Stanford celebrated its history, while UCLA wallowed in its history, and everything changed as quickly as Josh Rosen fell into a heap while thousands stood stunned and frozen in the Rose Bowl stands rising around him.

The nightmare is back because, it turns out, the nightmare never left.

Stanford drove down the field in the final two minutes Saturday night to score the go-ahead touchdown on a leaping catch by J.J. Arcega-Whiteside from Ryan Burns with 24 seconds left, then added a fumble return for a touchdown on the final play for a 22-13 victory.


“Obviously that’s about as difficult as it gets,’’ said Bruin Coach Jim Mora.

To be honest, it was worse.

One minute, UCLA was 3-1, and had conquered one of Mora’s demons — his team had never beaten the Cardinal in five previous attempts — while vaulting back into the national scene with a win over a seventh-ranked team.

The next minute, UCLA was 2-2, had blown a last-minute lead on national television, and everyone is back to wondering whether Mora’s Bruins can win the big one.

One minute, the UCLA defense was sterling, slowing Heisman candidate and nemesis Christian McCaffrey to a “mere” 138 yards rushing, holding the Cardinal to zero touchdowns, and forcing Stanford to drive 70 yards for a chance to win.

The next minute, the UCLA defense allowed Stanford to drive 70 yards to win.

The Rose Bowl, filled with 70,833 mostly Bruins fans, spent most of the night rocking and reveling and exacting loud revenge. But in the end the building grew quiet, its seats abandoned, and about the last folks to hang around were the shocked Bruins wandering aimlessly off the field.

“It stings when we lose like that, when we play so courageously on defense and do such a great job to such a really good team, and it comes down to them making a big play,” said Mora afterward. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, losing is awful.”

It started with a dumb penalty. Of course it did. Don’t UCLA’s meltdowns always seem to start with a dumb penalty?

As McCaffrey was signaling for a fair catch and grabbing UCLA’s punt deep in Bruins territory in the final minutes, he was brushed by Marcus Rios. Seriously. Rio touched him when everyone in the building knows you can’t touch him, a 15-yard infraction, and suddenly, with 2:03 remaining, Stanford had the ball on the Bruins 30-yard line and some long-awaited momentum.

“That penalty didn’t help us,” said defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. “At that point with the time on the clock, every yard counts.”

First play, Trenton Irwin was wide open for a 23-yard catch. He had not been wide open all day. A couple of plays later, Arcega-Whiteside grabbed a slant across the middle. Moments later, Irwin made a leaping 14-yard catch and the Cardinal was on the UCLA 19 yard line.

This was not happening earlier in the game. Few things were happening earlier with a Stanford offense that, until that final drive, had been outgained by the Bruins offense and slugged into apparent submission by the UCLA defense.

“We sure weren’t pushed around, that’s for sure,’’ said Mora.

But then they were pushed downfield, like they seemingly always are against this team, and how could so much change so quickly?

“They made some plays, they made some plays they hadn’t been making,” said Mora. “We didn’t change anything we had been doing. That’s a good football team, they have a reputation of being able to do that, and they did it.”

But the frustrating thing for Bruin fans is they didn’t do it with McCaffrey, who touched the ball only once on that last drive. They did with those quick passes from a struggling quarterback and then, finally, a jump ball in the corner of the end zone that Arcega-Whiteside turned into a ballet of touchdown as he made a leaping eight-yard catch over Nate Meadors while sticking his right foot inbounds.

There were still 24 seconds left, which was enough time for UCLA to set up a Hail Mary attempt around midfield in the final ticks, but Rosen was crushed and Solomon Thomas returned a fumble 42 yards on the game’s last play to finalize the score.

Rosen had his best game of the season, going a smart 18-for-27 for 248 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, but the Bruins were cursed by a running game, which will remain one of the nation’s worst with just 77 yards and an inability to sustain the one scoring drive that could have won this.

“We’re going to see them again…we’re a million percent going to see them again,’’ said Rosen, essentially predicting that the Bruins would meet the Cardinal in the Pac-12 championship game in December. ‘’And you’re going to get a better effort out of us.’’

At this point, if UCLA really does see Stanford again, it might be best for everyone else to just not look.

At halftime Saturday, with UCLA leading, 10-3, and controlling the pace, former Bruins basketball star Kevin Love took the field and led the joyous fans in an eight-clap.

Yet many ling minutes later — including two more of the most excruciating minutes in UCLA football history — the only number that matters is nine.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @BillPlaschke