Keisean Lucier-South rose from the turf and brushed off his chest with his fingertips, in slow and exaggerated fashion, after UCLA’s final defensive play Saturday.
The senior linebacker was immediately surrounded by teammates who repeated the gesture. First came Osa Odighizuwa. Then Tyler Manoa. Then Josh Woods.
There was nothing to brush off because artificial turf doesn’t tend to leave grass or dirt stains. It was just Lucier-South’s signature celebration, as well as a metaphor for his season debut after completing a three-game academic suspension.
He was back in the biggest of ways, having just blindsided Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon to force a fumble that Woods recovered with 59 seconds left to preserve the Bruins’ 67-63 victory.
Woods and Manoa had predicted the scenario after their team had taken its first lead of the fourth quarter a few minutes earlier, telling Lucier-South he needed to make a game-altering play.
“The funny thing is,” Lucier-South said, “I made the play, and it felt really good.”
The only plays Lucier-South had made over the previous five months came on a blocking sled while working alone. He had been held out of practice since April because of academic deficiencies that he had to address before making his return. But he showed up every day during fall camp, wearing a sun hat and clutching a laminated play sheet while he watched his teammates.
“It was rough while I was away,” Lucier-South said. “I worked every single day. I worked in the weight room, I worked after practice, I worked before practice. Working out three times a day and never gave up, trying to get ready for the fourth game against Washington State.”
He was ready for his big moment, beating the Cougars’ left tackle and getting to Gordon after the quarterback held the ball a beat too long. That allowed Lucier-South to break out the move he had last unveiled after making a sack against Texas A&M in 2017.
“I’m not trying to do it that much,” Lucier-South said of his celebration, “but at the time it just felt great. I had to do it.”
UCLA’s many happy returns against Washington State weren’t just unexpected, they were unprecedented.
The Bruins had never previously returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same game, according to available records that date to 1957.
Demetric Felton Jr. and Kyle Philips added their names to the record book by completing that rare daily double against the Cougars.
Felton’s 100-yard kickoff return, full of jukes, cutbacks and broken tackles, was all the more stunning considering the Bruins’ habit of fair catching kickoffs under coach Chip Kelly. The team has returned only six kickoffs in four games, but Felton said Kelly had given him more of a green light before Saturday.
Kelly said the decision whether to return a kickoff goes beyond where the ball is caught.
“The type of kick that’s made, the placement of the ball in the field, the type of return that’s set up, is it in our strike zone, is it not in our strike zone?” Kelly said of the additional factors. “There’s a lot that goes into it; it’s not just a, hey, just fair catch this for the heck of it.”
Some had feared Felton’s return, UCLA’s longest since Ishmael Adams returned one the same distance against Arizona State in 2014, might be wiped out by a seemingly incomprehensible penalty: One of the team’s operations staffers collided with an official running down the sideline.
But the Bruins benefited from a rule that enforces that penalty on the ensuing kickoff, allowing the return to stand.
Philips’ 69-yard punt return was the first punt brought back for a touchdown by UCLA since Maurice Jones-Drew returned one 81 yards against California in 2005. Philips broke one tackle in the moment after catching the ball and then weaved through defenders while crisscrossing the field.
He said he knew it was a touchdown once he saw teammate Chase Cota seal off a block that provided open passage to the other side of the field, where Philips evaded two more defenders on his way to the end zone. He also credited the scheme of coaches DeShaun Foster and Derek Sage for putting him in position for the big play.
“Like coach Foster said, you just have to make one guy miss and the scheme takes care of the rest,” Philips said. “I just ran. Blockers took care of the rest.”
Philips’ average of 37.3 yards per punt return has given UCLA the nation’s top spot in that category, albeit on only three returns.