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UCLA Sports

Josh Rosen’s debut is stellar, UCLA defense staunch in 34-16 win over Virginia

Josh Rosen, Jordan Payton, Micah Kiser

Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen takes aim for receiver Jordan Payton (9), who is covered by Cavaliers linebacker Micah Kiser (53) in the first half.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA had one question answered Saturday in the Rose Bowl: Freshman Josh Rosen is ready to play quarterback on the college level.

His first play was a perfectly thrown 55-yard pass that was dropped by receiver Kenneth Walker III. His last was a bad snap from center Jake Brendel. In between, the 18-year-old was well in control of everything during the Bruins’ 34-16 victory over Virginia.

This couldn’t have been scripted any better for Rosen. Everyone was impressed, including the guy who was the last UCLA freshman to catch the glare of the spotlight.

“During a timeout, I just had to walk over and shake his hand,” junior linebacker Myles Jack said. “I told him, ‘Man, you are doing great.’”

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Rosen could have handed that compliment back to Jack, and the UCLA defense.

There was a gathering media storm around Rosen, and justifiably so after his performance. He completed 28 of 35 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns.

Where the 13th-ranked Bruins hope to go this season depends a lot on Rosen. But an equal share rests on the other side of the ball.

The Bruins did a lot of backpedaling on defense last season. They allowed 28.1 points per game and, at times, treated tackling as if it was optional.

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There was a different look Saturday. The Bruins allowed only three field goals until the final minutes, when the Cavaliers picked up a touchdown that might make the long flight home a little less uncomfortable.

“I’ll take three field goals,” first-year UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “It takes three field goals to beat a touchdown.”

Said Jack: “Our offense is going to score more than three field goals.”

The Bruins were all about the touchdowns on offense. Rosen saw to that.

Rosen was so good that he passed for 59 yards on a 56-yard touchdown drive (the Bruins lost three yards rushing). He was so good that he threw for a touchdown to a nose guard (Kenny Clark hauled a three-yard scoring pass in the third quarter).

And he was so good that he was able to parachute a perfect pass over a defender and into the hands of tight end Thomas Duarte for a 30-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

“We all knew he was going to do stuff like that,” Duarte said. “We saw it every day in practice.”

Rosen completed passes to 11 different receivers. The Bruins rolled up 503 yards in total offense.

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Granted, this was Virginia, a team picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s seven-team Coastal Division. But Rosen seemed to have his feet on the ground.

“I was incredibly nervous before the first play,” he said. “Once I got my hands on the ball, I settled down.” Plus, Rosen said, “I have a ridiculously large supporting cast. I just have to keep this incredibly powerful train on the tracks.”

The Bruins were an effective offensive team last season as well. But the defense seemed on equal footing Saturday.

The comparison to 2014 was easy for Coach Jim Mora.

“I felt like we were more consistent against the run,” Mora said. “I felt like in general our containment of the quarterback was good. I thought we stayed on our feet and tackled well.”

There were holes, to be sure. The Bruins hurt themselves with penalties, which extended a couple Virginia drives.

Cornerback Fabien Moreau was called for pass interference on a third-down play. On another drive, Deon Hollins was flagged for a horse-collar tackle on a third-down play.

“We have to get three-and-outs and get the ball back,” Bradley said.

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But both Virginia drives ended with field goals.

“We can live with field goals,” Jack said.

What they can’t live with are long drives. The Bruins’ offense plays with a humming bird’s heart rate. Quick touchdown drives put the defense back on the field in a hurry. By halftime, Virginia had a two-to-one edge in time of possession.

“The only time I feel guilty about that is when we don’t score,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said.

Bradley said, “Hey, I’m a big fan of us scoring points.”

And Bradley and the defense would like to give Rosen more chances to do just that.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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