On the first day of UCLA’s fall camp back in August, Josh Rosen spoke in his typical, unapologetic manner about the Bruins competing for a national championship.
The last time UCLA was in the hunt for a national title, 1998, was the last time it won the Pac-12 championship.
By Week 8 of the 2016 season, the Bruins had reached two milestones from that 1998 season — dubious as they might be. One is scoring 45 points in a loss, which hadn’t happened since the regular-season finale against Miami, denying UCLA a spot in the inaugural BCS Championship Game. The other was allowing a single ball-carrier to break the 300-yard mark.
Those stats are pertinent, as they speak to the reality of UCLA’s 2016 season. The Bruins are far removed from national title contention, certainly. Their Pac-12 title aspirations evaporated amid the current, three-game losing streak and loss of 4-in-5 conference outings.
Further, UCLA faces issues well beyond quarterback play.
Reinserting Josh Rosen into the lineup now, as the Bruins try to salvage their bowl prospects, isn’t a short-term solution to get UCLA bowling. This team isn’t losing games because of reserve-turned-starter Mike Fafaul, who in UCLA’s most recent outing, threw a program record 70 pass attempts for 464 yards with five touchdowns against a stout Utah defense.
“It’s not about the records; it’s about my performance,” Fafaul said, adding reference to his four interceptions. “I just want to get a victory. I’m pretty disappointed we didn’t do that.”
Fafaul may have taken blame, but the UCLA offense is still in a state of fluidity that wouldn’t be much different now with Josh Rosen behind center.
UCLA’s up-and-down play on that side of the ball has prompted tinkering from the coaches in an effort to find an identity.
“You have to figure what your young men can do, simplify it, and execute it if it’s good,” offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu said following the Utah game.
His decision to simplify was a move away from a more traditional look with a huddle, fullback-as-lead blocker and tighter line formations, to an uptempo, spread, with the Bruins often lining up four and five wide receivers.
That came in part to accentuate Fafaul’s strengths, but also in response to UCLA’s run game woes — a problem plaguing the Bruins while Rosen was still in the lineup.
UCLA has the nation’s least productive rushing offense — 85 yards per game — with five games of 77 yards or less accrued on the ground.
Former All Pac-12 selection Paul Perkins has proven more difficult to replace than perhaps projected, with Polamalu and Jim Mora trying various looks at feature back to find something that clicks. Thus far, nothing really has.
“It’s difficult from a standpoint of [opposing defenses] kind of know what’s coming,” Fafaul said.
Rendered one-dimensional, defenses have been free to tee off on the quarterbacks, whether Rosen or Fafaul. At Arizona State, that contributed both to Rosen’s injury and Fafaul’s initial struggles.
Fafaul was thrown into a difficult situation that night in Tempe, as Rosen had led UCLA deep into Sun Devil territory on what could have been the game-winning drive. Fafaul threw an incompletion on third-and-long, then on the subsequent possession took two sacks before throwing his second interception of the night. He was unable to exploit the deficiencies in the Arizona State secondary that have made the Sun Devils the worst pass defense in college football, and which contributed to Rosen’s 400-yard night in his 2016 swan song.
But even as Fafaul struggled that night, those final two possessions underscore bigger problems with the Bruins.
Fafaul had no blocking. His timing in the pocket was not comparable to that of Rosen, but Arizona State’s blitz-heavy defense overwhelmed UCLA’s blockers.
The Bruins also moved from scoring range, but were pushed by because of penalties before Fafaul entered the game. Both pass blocking and penalties have been issues repeatedly for UCLA over Mora’s tenure as head coach.
Josh Rosen has one season of eligibility remaining before he can enter the NFL draft. The nation’s most highly touted quarterback prospect in 2015, he’s likely as good as gone when the 2017 season concludes.
Sitting him now to heal completely is the best choice for Rosen individually, and UCLA as a program. Mora and Co. can return to the drawing board for this final month to focus on shoring up some of the glaring issues that denied the Bruins their pursuit of a Pac-12 championship.