As a fan, which type of loss is more painful to deal with? A blowout loss where your team was completely outmatched? Or a game that you were in position to win, probably should have won, but found a way to lose at the end?
I would argue that the latter type is especially painful. Perhaps the two most painful losses of my young football-watching career were of this variety: Number one, the Desean Jackson walk-off game-winning punt return in 2010 against the Giants, which kept New York out of the playoffs (the Giants had a 31-10 lead with seven and a half minutes left in the game; they would go on to lose 38-31). And number two, the 34-28 Patriots Super Bowl win against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. We all know that the Falcons gave up a 28-3 lead in that game, far and away, the largest comeback in Super Bowl history.
In the aforementioned Giants’ loss, the defense gave up three touchdowns in seven minutes and could not stop Vick on the ground. And after a Giants three and out with the game tied at 31 and 12 seconds left, Punter Matt Dodge kicked a line drive to Desean Jackson, and Desean took it all the way as the clock hit double zeros. In the Falcons loss, a Matt Ryan fumble caused by a missed Devonta Freeman block, a sack and holding penalty late in the game to push Bryant out of field goal range, a dropped Robert Alford INT against Brady on his game-tying drive, an inability to stop either 2 point conversion attempt, and a loss of the coin flip in overtime led to probably the biggest choke job in NFL history. If just ONE of those things doesn’t happen, the Patriots can’t come back.
Anyway, those are especially drastic examples, and I certainly wouldn’t put the UCLA loss on the same level as those. But just off the top of my head, those are easily the two most painful losses I’ve dealt with as a fan. The point being, giving away a game that is in your grasp is an especially tough pill to swallow.
But that’s exactly what happened to UCLA on Saturday night. They led by multiple scores several times, and they arguably looked like the better team. But they allowed USC to come back and eventually to win the game. They now are back at .500 on the year, while USC is undefeated, will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and has even garnered some College Football Playoff discussion. This is despite the fact that they are not a good team, that this was the third game they were incredibly lucky not to lose this year, and that there is a zero percent chance of them getting into the playoff.
And that’s the other problem with fluky wins. They often lead to incorrect narratives. This was especially true with the Patriots’ win in the Super Bowl, a game that pretty much led to Tom Brady being universally proclaimed as the GOAT from that point on despite the fact that he was incredibly lucky to win that game.
“The USC Trojans should not have won this game against the UCLA Bruins, but they found a way to pull it together to defeat their rivals.”
“They probably shouldn’t be 5-0, but they finished perfect nonetheless.”
Yet as much as I could complain about USC, the fact is that they are undefeated and they are playing in the Championship Game. Neither of those things are true for the Bruins, and this game showed that despite UCLA’s improvement, they are still the little brother to USC in LA. And it doesn’t matter how good you are if, at the end of the day, you can’t find a way to close out these games.
I thought UCLA definitely had a chance coming into this one, but I also didn’t know what to expect. Partially because beating your rival is tough to do, partially because the season being so short makes it hard to tell how real UCLA’s apparent growth is, and partially because the Pac-12 is pretty much always unpredictable. A UCLA win would not have surprised me, but a USC blowout would not have either.
What I did NOT expect was for UCLA to look as good as they did early on in this game. They looked like the better team unequivocally. They got out to leads of 14-0 and then 28-10, and it seemed certain that they would run away with it.
UCLA looked about just as good as we’ve seen them under Chip Kelly. The offensive line and the running backs were doing their thing–playing aggressive, downhill, physical football, and moving bodies significantly. The passing game was clicking and super in sync. Kelly was playing fast, multiple, and dictating the pace and matchups against a USC defense that was in reactive mode. And the SC offense looked as troubled as they have been all year.
The rushing total for UCLA was a bit below some of their prior games, but it was still plenty productive. DTR was a whopping 30/36 for 364 yards, 4 TDs, and 2 picks. The late pick did hurt them, but he played well overall, and the flashes of confidence and aggressiveness we’ve seen from him in the past when he gets in rhythm were in full display here. And Dulcich continues to be a monster downfield threat and the big-play guy who has great chemistry with and trust from DTR.
USC did what they’ve been doing all year, which is wear teams down with the passing game. As usual, they weren’t efficient and they got out to a slow start. But when you run that air raid offense and are throwing the ball so much throughout the game, it tends to be a lot to keep up with for defenses. And UCLA was unable to stop Slovis and the Trojans from coming back to win this one.
It was not a good day for the UCLA defense. The corners gave way too much cushion to SC’s receivers, and Slovis was able to eat them up just with hitches and slants over and over again. (Remember, the air raid playbook is pretty thin, and the system is much more about repetition and execution than it is play volume.) Slovis was also able to take his deep shots when he needed to, and he led the Trojans back in this one to the tune of 30/47, 344 yards, 5 TDs, and 2 INTs.
Another concern for the Bruins was the success SC had on the ground. Malepeai had a really good day despite the fact that SC had not run the ball well at all before this game. But most concerning for UCLA was the tackling (or lack thereof) from Azzinaro’s defense, which surely triggered some flashbacks to last year’s horrendous defense among Bruins fans.
Another thing that plagued UCLA in this game and that has been a problem throughout the Chip Kelly era for the Bruins were the self-inflicted mistakes. There was the punt gone wrong, where the Bruins wedge gave up instant penetration on the punter who would then pull the ball down instead of trying to kick it. That led to a turnover on downs in Bruins territory. There was the fourth and one the Bruins went for late in the third quarter that also led to a turnover on downs on the Bruins side of the field, this time after Felton was stuffed in the backfield. And lastly, DTR’s pick-six, which gave SC a 36-35 lead in the 4th. DTR would answer on the next drive which led to a go-ahead field goal with 52 seconds left. But defending a 2 point lead with little time left is not an enviable position in football these days. On the ensuing kickoff, UCLA gave up a huge return as SC brought the ball to the UCLA 45. Slovis would then squeeze a ball into the hands of Tyler Vaughns on the fade, and right after that, a back-shoulder St. Brown catch in the endzone gave SC a lead with not enough time left for UCLA to answer. It was clear that USC’s wide receivers were better than UCLA’s corners in this game.
It was an exciting back and forth, but it was also a game that drove you crazy if you’re a UCLA fan. The Trojans should not have been able to get back in the game, but that’s exactly what they did. They came back multiple times and eventually were able to win it and take the lead after trailing for most of the day.
So here UCLA is, back at 3-3 and with one game left on the year. There has been an improvement for sure, but there’s also still a lot of work to be done, and UCLA has to be able to close these games, tackle on defense, and stop shooting themselves in the foot.
Next week’s game will determine whether UCLA finishes with a winning or losing record. With a win, they could even be looking at bowl eligibility, although bowl season is pretty up in the air right now so it’s not entirely clear how that will work or if it will happen.
Chip Kelly has not had a winning season yet at UCLA. These Bruins tend to start poorly, tease us with potential improvement, but then tend to revert back to their losing ways as the season comes to a close.
That’s why this week’s game against Stanford is so important, and why UCLA can’t dwell on this loss and let it get in their heads. UCLA under Kelly has had a tendency to pile failures on top of each other when things start to go wrong. But they’re a good team this year, and they certainly are capable of winning games.
This loss stings, but a win to close out the year would sure end the season on a bright note for this program. Let’s hope that UCLA can find a way to keep their momentum going here. It won’t bode well for Chip Kelly’s capacity to turn this program around if the Bruins keep being unable to build on and maintain the improvement and potential that they show. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that these Bruins can end the season on a high note.