How Josh Rosen and UCLA delivered one of the greatest comebacks ever

PASADENA, Calif. – With the clock ticking under 50 seconds and UCLA out of timeouts, Josh Rosen rushed to the line of scrimmage and took a quick snap. He took a sudden step back, raised his right elbow to spike the ball into the ground and jerked his body back upright. Texas A&M cornerback Myles Jones, playing UCLA’s Jordan Lasley in man coverage on the boundary, momentarily froze on Rosen’s fake. “The DB realized at the last second,” Rosen said later with a smirk, “that the play was actually a play.”

The play that turned out to be a play provided the perfect coda for a game that that for three quarters didn’t appear to be much of a game. But Rosen freezing Jones turned out to be a frozen moment, the final touchdown of a furious sprint of five consecutive scoring drives that secured UCLA a 45-44 victory over Texas A&M at the Rose Bowl on Sunday night.

The Bruins overcame a 44-10 deficit late in the third quarter, scoring 35 points in less than 17 minutes. In the fourth quarter alone, Rosen threw for four touchdown passes and 292 yards on a night when he finished 35 of 59 for 491 yards. And for a final act that will be the next generation’s version of the Dan Marino spike, he froze a helpless freshman defensive back for a moment that will stand still in UCLA history. “I don’t know if anyone has ever seen anything like that,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said after the game.

Statistically, Guerrero was right. UCLA had only a .04 percent chance of winning late in the game, longer odds than the Patriots faced in winning the Super Bowl last season. UCLA overcoming a 34-point deficit marked the second-biggest comeback in FBS history, behind Michigan State’s 35-point comeback win over Northwestern in 2006. But even the sheer numeric anomaly couldn’t match just how lopsided and mismatched the two teams felt for three quarters. Texas A&M overwhelmed UCLA in both trenches. Rosen spent the game on his back, Texas A&M rushed for 286 yards by halftime and writers across the press box – this one included – began writing ominous columns about UCLA possibly needing to eat Jim Mora’s buyout of nearly $12 million.

When UCLA scored with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, fans were streaming out of the Rose Bowl. But then a confluence of events happened – a tipped pass for a touchdown, horrific Texas A&M play calling, a blocked field goal and a missed interception – that conjured hope for the hopeless. Rosen is an economics major and views life through a prism of pure logic. And what unfolded wasn’t logical. “We were an inch away from losing that game probably 10 times.”

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This is the type of game that stays with you. Think about Boise winning on a Statue of Liberty, Syracuse outlasting Connecticut in six overtimes and Vince Young darting into the same end zone where the A&M defensive back froze. Rosen admitted he knows the moment that will stay with him. When he took a snap with about nine seconds left, he backpedaled a few steps and banged his knee down near midfield. Texas A&M didn’t bother taking a timeout. Rosen saw the clock frozen at nine seconds and then watched it tick toward zero. “Wow,” Rosen said to himself, “we did it.”

How did they do it? That’s a question most of the people in attendance – those who didn’t bail to beat the traffic – are still asking themselves. The story of this game begins with Rosen, who completed just 16-of-33 passes for 199 yards in the first three quarters. “No one lost hope,” Rosen said. “But at a certain point, you’re not really looking at the scoreboard anymore.”

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen leaves the field after the Bruins defeated Texas A&M on Sunday. (AP)

Rosen joked later that the start of the game wasn’t an ideal way to start off his relationship with new coordinator Jedd Fisch. But at halftime with the Bruins down 38-10, Fisch – a devotee of Bill Belichick – mentioned the Patriots trailing 28-3 in the Super Bowl at halftime. “Josh’s poise, man,” Fisch said. “You should have seen it. He said, ‘Let me throw it around and I won’t let you down.’ ”

And then Rosen began throwing. He kicked off the fourth quarter with back-to-back touchdown drives – eight plays for 85 yards and five plays for 96 yards. Both of those TDs went to Darren Andrews, and the second was one of the inches Rosen mentioned, as Texas A&M defensive back Deshawn Capers-Smith let an interception slip through his hands that he could have fair caught. Instead, it slithered through his fingers into the belly of Andrews, and hope began to appear with just over eight minutes remaining. “One thing led to another,” Rosen said. “There’s really no other way to put it.”

The only person this game meant more to than Mora was Rosen, who missed half of last season with a shoulder injury and keeps finding off-field brush fires thanks to comments perceived to be controversial. But with one transcendent performance, Rosen transformed from a polarizing figure to a galvanizing talent.

“People focus too much on some of the things that he’s said in the past,” Mora said. “He’s starting to act like a man, and that’s good to see.”

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If Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin does end up getting fired at some point this year – and at this point it’s hard to imagine that he won’t – this game will likely be the first line in the obituary. Sumlin entered the season with such a tenuous job situation that his own athletic director publicly put him on watch, saying the Aggies needed to improve on their three consecutive 8-5 seasons.

This game unfolded like a one-act play commemorating the arc of those seasons – searing September optimism followed by adversity and a failure to respond that left everyone disappointed. Texas A&M lost starting quarterback Nick Starkel to injury early in the third quarter, which certainly contributed to its offense entering the witness protection program in the second half. (Starkel was spotted in a boot in street clothes on the sideline). But when asked how to explain the meltdown, Sumlin answered pithily and accurately: “You don’t explain it.”

Other than Sumlin, blame will certainly be directed to Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. (He was Rosen’s coordinator during his freshman year at UCLA and didn’t leave on the smoothest of terms). In Texas A&M’s final seven possessions with the lead, the Aggies threw 15 passes, ran the ball 21 times and were sacked five times. If Nick Saban were watching how Texas A&M nursed an insurmountable lead he’d have broken out in hives. “Obviously, they changed their defense,” Sumlin said, “and really dared us to throw it.” He later added about the aggressive play calling: “It’s a decision you have to make to try and stay ahead.”

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin yells to one of his players during the Aggies’ loss to UCLA on Sunday. (AP)

The play sequence that will only be mentioned when accompanied by Crown Royal for upcoming seasons in College Station came on Texas A&M’s final possession with the lead with three minutes remaining. Backup QB Kellen Mond ran the ball for two yards on first down, threw an incompletion to stop the clock and then took a sack (after which UCLA took its final timeout). Somehow, Texas A&M’s possession lasted only 24 seconds. (Early in the game, after a Rosen fumble the Aggies recovered at the UCLA 3-yard line, A&M settled for a field goal after passing twice despite running the ball at will on the previous drive).

If this game is in the lead of Sumlin’s Texas A&M career obituary, those sequences will be prominently featured in the game management sections of where things went wrong. “We’re not going to make excuses, we didn’t get it done as coaches,” Sumlin said, echoing the chorus of his fan base.

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For Rosen and UCLA, the inches kept piling up. Defensive back Adarius Pickett got a finger on a 43-yard field goal attempt with 4:45 left and Texas A&M up 13. Caleb Wilson, who set a school record with 15 catches, extended the following drive with a clutch 26-yard grab on fourth-and-3. Rosen capped that drive by hitting Theo Howard for a 16-yard touchdown, a play Rosen said came on accident when a ball he was trying to throw away got tipped. “The things that had to go right for us to win this game,” he said, “were incredible.”

In the end, as the players sprinted to the student section, the sheer improbability of it all swept through everyone. Texas A&M may recover and have a great season. UCLA may go back to getting ragdolled in the trenches. But the feeling at the Rose Bowl violently shifting from despair to hope to elation will linger here for decades – a frozen cornerback providing an indelible moment. “It was,” Guerrero said, “pretty much impossible.”

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