Column: UCLA’s Josh Rosen overcomes a little adversity for a lot of success against UNLV

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen throws downfield against UNLV on Sept. 10 at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A week after throwing himself under the bus, Josh Rosen was involuntarily pounded into the grass.

How much could one phenom take?

By the time the UCLA quarterback found himself face down on the midfield ground at the Rose Bowl late in the first quarter Saturday evening, Rosen could be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a long, brutal autumn.

Seven days earlier, he had started the season by throwing three interceptions, making poor decisions down the stretch, and blaming himself for an overtime loss at Texas A&M.

Then, in Saturday’s home opener against Nevada Las Vegas, his second pass had been beautifully lofted into the outstretched arms of a streaking Kenneth Walker III deep in Rebels territory, a sure touchdown … but Walker couldn’t pull it in.

Then, finally, late in the first quarter of a tie game, after a long pass to Walker that was nullified by a penalty, Rosen was absolutely steamrolled by linebacker Matt Lea.


Completion gone. Breath gone. Body crumpled. Head in hands. What next?

Watching Rosen struggle to his feet, wondering if he would be removed from the game to literally have his head examined, the 19-year-old quarterback’s words from the previous week echoed in the setting Pasadena sun.

“I play better with a little adversity,” he had said.

He’s right. He does. He talked it, then walked it, and ran it, and passed it, and pushed it, leading the Bruins downfield and eventually to their first victory, a 42-21 decision over the outmanned Rebels.

“I strongly believe I am the best quarterback in this country and in order to do so I have to take the responsibility of such,’’ Rosen said afterward. “I didn’t play like it last week, I think I am getting there this week, and I think you have to play with that confidence in order to be successful.’’

On this night, that confidence showed during his toughest moments.

“That’s Josh, he’s resilient,” Coach Jim Mora said afterward. “In order to be a great competitor, you have to be able to process what happened and you have to to be able to move forward, and Josh is really good at that.”

Two plays after absorbing his first-quarter crushing, Rosen stood up to hit Ishmael Adams on a 16-yard screen pass. Five plays later, at the start of the second quarter, he sprinted around right end on third-and-10 to run for exactly 10 yards.

Bill Plaschke, Ben Bolch and Lindsey Thiry break down UCLA’s 42-21 victory over Nevada Las Vegas in a home opener.

Then, in an oddly defining moment, a guy known for the beauty of his passes threw one pretty … block?

With Soso Jamabo taking a handoff, popping out of a crowd, and then reversing his field, Rosen shoved Salanoa-Alo Wily — a 280-pound tackle — to help spring Jamabo for a 23-yard touchdown run.

Mora loved the block. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe not.

“I wanted him to use his left shoulder rather than his right shoulder,” said Mora, worried about the right-handed Rosen’s precious posssession. “I’ll ask him to do that next time.”

Rosen said he didn’t use that shoulder. Maybe.

“I saw him coming around and I was really going to go for it and I realized it was my throwing shoulder so I just got in his way,’’ Rosen said

The Bruins took a 14-7 lead they never lost, and Rosen set a tone that would be continued throughout the game, and likely throughout this season.

This is his team. The eight-clap pounds on his shoulders. The Bruins’ resides under his jersey. When he fails, they will fail. When he soars, they will look unstoppable.

Beginning with the defense. A variety of missed tackles and blown coverages led to a UNLV comeback that closed the gap to 28-21 entering the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the kid, again.

When his receivers drop passes, as they did in large quantities Saturday night, he will just have to keep throwing the rock until they find it. When his defense sputters, as it did Saturday after losing Eddie Vanderdoes to another apparent knee injury while nearly blowing a 28-7 lead, it will turn to Rosen to save them.

“I get a lot of flack for being blunt and honest and letting everyone know what’s on my mind, and last week I did that,’’ Rosen said. “I’m pretty happy but there are definitely things we can get better on.’’

Rosen threw a perfect back-shoulder, 23-yard pass to Jordan Lasley to give the Bruins the ball on the one-yard line, from where Bolu Olorunfunmi scored on a plunge to give them a two-touchdown lead. On the next drive, Rosen hit Lasley across the middle for 18 yards to the three-yard line to set up another touchdown, this time on Rosen’s one-yard touchdown run.

His stats for the game were not outrageous. He completed 23 of 38 for 267 yards and a gorgeous 29-yard touchdown slant pass to Mossi Johnson with no interceptions and the one touchdown rushing.

Nice numbers, but not the stats of a Heisman race. After two games, he is not anywhere near the Heisman race. But that’s OK, because they were the stats of a winner, and that is how Rosen will have his greatest value this fall.

A season that could have been all about him is now clearly all about how he can help everyone else, his greatness to be defined on how well he can carry this surprisingly inconsistent and unsettled team to its forecasted excellence.

Before the game, in the video board introductions, Rosen licked his fingers and ran them across his purposely awful mustache, thus tweaking both the crowd and his upper lip.

He’s funny like that. But make no mistake. Josh Rosen keeps that upper lip stiff. It’s the only way these Bruins can survive, and that’s no joke.

Twitter: @BillPlaschke