PASADENA, Calif. — The game was over. Several thousand fans were sure of it as they headed for their cars.
And can you blame them?
It was nearly 100 degrees at the Rose Bowl on Sunday night, and late in the third quarter, Texas AM led 44-10. Stick around in the heat to watch one of the worst opening-season losses in UCLA history? No, thanks.
Those who did were rewarded greatly.
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen lived up to his lofty billing while leading the Bruins on five straight touchdown drives, capped by a 10-yard score to Jordan Lasley with 43 seconds remaining to secure an improbable 45-44 comeback win.
It was a loss for Texas AM that somewhat managed to accomplish what usually takes a whole season: It started off great — just how good can this team be? — and then quickly went off the rails. It undoubtedly left the fan base frustrated and, again, wondering just how long coach Kevin Sumlin has at his job.
Texas AM and UCLA are more similar than different. Their rosters are loaded with former big-time recruits. They consistently produce NFL players. Neither has won anything of significance in a long time. The parallels are seemingly endless.
Both UCLA coach Jim Mora and Sumlin were hired prior to the 2012 season and provided immediate improvement. Sumlin won 29 games in his first three seasons; Mora also won 29. Since then, however, their tenures have been defined by stagnancy (Sumlin) and regression (Mora).
In the offseason, UCLA seemingly did everything right. Its offense was a disaster last season, and Mora reconstructed the offensive coaching staff. He replaced it with a more experienced, more accomplished one, led by coordinator Jedd Fisch, whose rapport with Rosen, from all accounts, has been good.
At first, though, the results were more of the same. UCLA couldn’t run the ball, and Rosen didn’t get enough time to find any sort of a rhythm. But once things finally clicked, it didn’t stop.
Despite being pressured on 49 percent of his dropbacks, Rosen completed 35 of 58 passes for 491 yards and four touchdowns. One of Rosen’s touchdowns, it should be noted, should have been an easy interception. A deep pass went right through the hands of a defender and into Darren Andrews’ hands for a 42-yard touchdown to make the score 44-31.
“We were an inch away from losing that game probably ten times,” Rosen said. “From throwing a pick, almost throwing a pick to a D-lineman, to two tipped balls. I was fully trying to throw that ball away — that touchdown to Theo [Howard]— I was not throwing it to anyone. He just hit my hand. I just got lucky.”
The victory masks some obvious problems for UCLA, but after such a memorable win, those conversations can wait for another day.
A clear turning point came when Texas AM lost quarterback Nick Starkel to injury when leading 41-10. Once he went down, the Aggies couldn’t do anything right.
For Texas AM, a loss at this stage of the season is something different.
Since Sumlin has been the coach in College Station, Texas, the Aggies are 20-2 in games played in August and September. In game Nos. 1-8 each season, Sumlin is 30-10. After that, he’s 14-11. In a season in which Sumlin is coaching for his job, an embarrassing loss to start the season was the worst-case scenario.
Still, the team has to move on, which begged the question: How?
“How do you try? You don’t have a choice,” Sumlin said. “What you do it what we just talked about in that [locker room]. You got two choices. For a team and for me and everybody else, tomorrow the sun comes up.”