By Morris Phillips
SANTA CLARA–After getting run over by Nebraska and their telling 62 rush attempts, the UCLA Bruins may have 62 reasons they found themselves in such a predicament on Saturday night at the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara.
Injuries, defections, coaching, even recruiting preferences and as always, the wackiness of the bowl season accounted for a toxic mix in the Bruins 37-29 loss to Nebraska. Making the whole thing increasingly frustrating was the roof didn’t cave in until after UCLA established a 21-7 lead in the second quarter as the 8-4 Pac-12 team at least temporarily outclassed the 5-7 also-ran from the Big Ten as anticipated.
At that juncture, the tenor of the game changed. Nebraska heated up like a kettle on a stove, with the whistling crescendo in the third quarter in which the Huskers held the ball for 13 of the 15 minutes. Two touchdowns before the break, and 16 points after added up to a 30-point run for Nebraska that were this a boxing match, would have forced the referee to stop the action.
“We struggled to stop the run tonight,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “They ran it 62 times at us and just felt like they could probably wear us out. We’re a little bit light on defense as everyone knows and they took advantage of that, and it was tough for us to get them stopped.”
Early on, Nebraska’s run game didn’t seem like a huge concern. Of the Huskers first 16 rush attempts, five went for two yards or less and none went for more than seven yards. The 14th of those 16 saw Nebraska quarterback Tommy Frazier fumble in UCLA territory, a damaging play that triggered a quick strike from freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. Four plays after the fumble, Rosen hit Kenneth Walker with a beautifully thrown deep ball and UCLA had it’s 14-point lead.
But while UCLA was comfortably ahead, Nebraska was getting comfortable. Coach Mike Riley sensed it on the drive in which Frazier fumbled. When the Huskers got the ball back, it wasn’t long before everyone in the stadium sensed it as well.
“We were having success,” Riley said. “It wasn’t just two or three yards it was five-plus. That feels good. All of those second down situations become easier. I could feel it on the sidelines. They could feel it on the field. Everyone was getting excited as we controlled the line of scrimmage.”
Riley, like Mora, has an NFL background, having coached the NFL Chargers for three seasons. The 62-year old coach—and son of a coach—knows a little bit about strategy and in-game adjustments. More importantly, Riley’s proven to be a master at winning bowl games, doing it six times in eight tries at Oregon State, often as an underdog.
During a month’s preparation, Riley undoubtedly noticed UCLA’s run stopping deficiencies. But those deficiencies weren’t obvious: the Bruins finished in the upper third of the Pac-12 in total defense (393 yards per game) and were in the middle of the pack defending the run (7th, allowing 187 yards per game). But Stanford—with their mammoth offensive line—gashed the Bruins for 311 yards rushing.
Then in the final game of their season, USC’s commitment to run against UCLA paid off when they broke open a close game by scoring the game’s final 20 points to win 40-21. In that one, the Trojans ran it 59 times for a respectable 235 yards, but USC’s stubborn intent was the precursor to their closing run.
Still, Nebraska had other ways to attack their Pac-12 opponent. Frazier threw for nearly 3,000 yards this season, and the Cornhuskers’ run game wasn’t exactly a knockout, averaging 167 yards per game (7th in the 14-team Big 10). So it’s apparent that Riley took a closer look.
Of those 59 USC rush attempts against UCLA, the longest run of the day was just 18 yards befitting the Bruins’ bend-but-don’t-break reputation. So again, the run-it-down-their-throat strategy didn’t jump off the page. But UCLA’s personnel issues did.
In September, UCLA lost linebacker Myles Jack, unquestionably the team’s most talented player, and considered the top linebacker prospect in the 2016 NFL draft. Jack suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice, and subsequently declared his intentions to leave the university with a year of eligibility. In what would become a reoccurring theme, Jack left school—and the football program—almost immediately after his injury.
With Jack injured and gone, more focus fell on rush ends Deon Hollins and Takkarist McKinley. Both players were brought in by Mora to put heat on the opposing quarterback and use their excellent recovery speed to slow Pac-12 spread offenses. With Jack aboard as a premiere run stopper, starting Hollins and McKinley made sense. Without Jack, the two appeared miscast.
In Nebraska’s dominant third quarter Saturday in which they rushed for nearly half their total (151 yards), the Huskers repeatedly ran right, at Hollins, prompting Mora to switch the rush end to the left side, and then take him in out of the game for much of the fourth quarter. McKinley didn’t fare well either, picking up a critical personal foul penalty out of frustration at one point.
“We need to get bigger obviously,” Mora admitted. “We need to get stronger obviously. And those are things we will work on in our recruiting. We’re working to get bigger guys so we can get into these games like against a team like Nebraska, that’s a power team, or Stanford, that’s a power team, so we have more guys that we can roll out there that have some girth to them so we don’t get pushed around.”
Adding to Mora’s problems was the Bruins’ offense with Rosen at the controls. Rosen put up amazing numbers as a true freshman blessed with a world of talent. But around Rosen during bowl week, change was everywhere. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was lost last week with an undisclosed illness that took him away from the final week of preparations. Bravely, Mazzone returned to coach on Saturday, but from his perch above in the booth, according to Mora, his voice slowly gave way during the game, making the play calls more difficult. At one point, Rosen was given the freedom to call his own plays.
But on a critical third down with UCLA trying to rally down eight, while Rosen gestured wildly while calling an audible, the ball was prematurely snapped, resulting in a fumble and an 11-yard loss. On the next play, All-American place kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 46-yard field goal attempt.
Compounding matters for the UCLA offense, starting guard Alex Redmond was out, disqualified from the team when he decided to hire an agent, forfeiting the final game of his career. In Redmond’s place, redshirt freshman Cristian Garcia got the start with Najee Toran spelling him. Toran, also a redshirt freshman, had trouble handling the Nebraska rush. The changes up front didn’t help Rosen one bit, especially in the Huskers 30-point run.
“Our defense got ran on 62 times but it’s our responsibility on offense to control the ball a little bit and give them a break,” Rosen said.
After starting 10 of 12 for 126 yards and two touchdowns, Rosen slowed considerably, finishing 26 of 40 with a pair of picks.
The Huskers became the second team to win a bowl game this year despite having a losing record. UCLA failed to secure a program-record 30th win over a 4-year period that mirrors Mora’s arrival in Los Angeles.
And the Pac-12 failed to pitch a shutout Saturday after Washington and Washington State posted impressive bowl wins prior to the Foster Farms Bowl. Meanwhile, Riley became a bowl winner in his first year as coach of Nebraska.