On the radio call of No. 25 UCLA’s 48-45 loss Saturday at Memphis, former Bruins quarterback and current color analyst Matt Stevens called Josh Rosen “the closest thing (UCLA has) had to Aikman since Aikman.”
Stevens refers, of course, to Troy Aikman, an inductee to both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. It’s high praise, and not unwarranted; with 463 yards passing at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, Rosen owns the most prolific three-game stretch in UCLA football history. His four touchdown passes against the Tigers give him 13 on the season, the nation’s most pending the remainder of Week 3 results.
And just like Troy Aikman, even the best games for Josh Rosen need help.
UCLA’s star junior, who entered Week 3 with considerable Heisman Trophy buzz, might be at the center of a different chatter in the week to come. In a three-point loss to an upstart Memphis program, a play like the pick-six Rosen threw to Tigers linebacker Tim Hart looms large.
Hart ran the interception back 60 yards for the touchdown, extending what had been a back-and-forth game to a double-digit lead for Memphis midway through the third quarter. The Bruins had to battle from behind — something they’d already done adeptly once on the young season — and indeed, took the lead behind a couple of Rosen touchdown passes.
The pick-6 was his first interception on the year, but not his last; a red-zone pick by Tigers cornerback T.J. Carter on a mistimed route preserved one of the biggest wins for Memphis football in the program’s recent resurgence.
Yes, those two interceptions will loom large and assuredly serve as fodder in the week-long echo chamber before Rosen and UCLA return to action next week against Stanford. But in a game in which Rosen passed for four scores and rushed for a fifth, the loss can’t be pinned on the offense.
Even the Bruins’ run game, the rightful source of criticism since finishing No. 127 in the nation for production a season ago, showed up in a way it hasn’t since 2015. UCLA totaled 170 yards on the ground at a robust 4.9 yards per carry.
Take away the two interceptions, and this was close to the perfect reflection of first-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s vision for a revamped UCLA attack.
These things happen. In 1988, the Aikman-led Bruins ascended to No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll the week before Halloween when Washington State came to the Rose Bowl. The scene ended in similar fashion to Saturday’s contest at the Liberty Bowl, with a standout quarterback leading his team into the red zone, only to come away empty-handed.
Aikman finished with 325 yards passing on the day, a big chunk of the 2,771 he rolled up on his way to being named a Heisman finalist.
And like Saturday, the UCLA defense gave up huge passing plays and racked up multiple penalty flags for costly yards.
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson dissected the UCLA defense for 398 yards and six touchdowns, coming one score shy of matching the program’s single-game record Paxton Lynch set in 2015.
Wide receiver Anthony Miller, who UCLA head coach Jim Mora praised effusively last week, popped off for 185 receiving yards and two scores.
Memphis exploited an injury-depleted defense, with freshman standout lineman Jaelan Phillips becoming the latest addition to a rapidly growing M*A*S*H* unit. The Bruins also did themselves zero favors, drawing 10 flags for 99 yards. Memphis had six first downs on penalties.
UCLA has been notorious for ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12 in penalty yardage throughout Mora’s tenure, and entered Saturday’s contest No. 97 in the nation in that category. It will almost assuredly drop after Saturday’s contest.
The Bruins have much to reexamine after their cup of coffee in the Top 25, and before a pivotal early season test in Week 4. UCLA is winless against Stanford since 2008, with six losses against Cardinal squads headed by David Shaw.
While returning to error-free football will be a point of emphasis for Rosen, the quarterback’s very Aikman-like overall performance is the last concern UCLA needs to take away from Memphis.