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Cashing in opportunities is UCLA’s critical challenge

(Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire)

UCLA’s first offensive snap Saturday in a 31-24 loss Saturday at Texas A&M set an ominous tone.

Set up on the right side of the 50-yard line, new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu called a home-run shot to the end zone that sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen underthrew. A late-hit penalty against the Aggies softened the blow of a missed surefire touchdown, but the possession resulted in three points rather than six.

In an overtime loss, that stings.

So, too, does a drop in the end zone on third down of said overtime, which would have extended the game to another period. Tight end Austin Roberts got open, Rosen delivered the ball in position for an easy catch, and it sailed through Roberts’ hands.

A close loss welcomes such over-analysis; a rout, not so much. Credit to the Bruins the game did not go that way; it very well could have.

The new-look UCLA offense spent much of the afternoon stymied, opening the door for Texas A&M to turn a 10-9 halftime lead into a 24-9 advantage by the fourth quarter.

After second-half debacles to end last season against USC and Nebraska, and another in 2014 versus Stanford that denied the Bruins a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance, precedent for a UCLA unraveling exists.

Scoring a couple of touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the back half of the fourth quarter, UCLA looked like a team capable of contending for a Pac-12 crown. Week 1 doesn’t define a team for a season, but having positives to glean helps the building process.

Those fourth-quarter scores and a solid defensive effort much of the afternoon give head coach Jim Mora and his staff positives.

Now… about those negatives.

UCLA fell behind 15 points through a combination of missed opportunities, missed blocking assignments on the offensive line, and missed throws from Rosen.

Texas A&M’s outstanding defensive front took advantage of a young UCLA offensive line, bringing near-constant pressure to the backfield. Left tackle Conor McDermott, a rising NFL draft prospect, acquitted himself well, but A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis’ blitz packages overwhelmed the Bruins.

After line play directly contributed to UCLA losing the Pac-12 South in both 2013 and 2014, the front five’s progression into conference play will be a pivotal development.

The same’s true for Rosen, touted as a Heisman contender but still just a true sophomore. His age showed Saturday.

The quarterback’s comments this week about the noise level at a venue the size of Kyle Field opened the sophomore up for criticism. Not that that bothers Rosen; the youngster’s openness about the NCAA and politics have made him something of a lightning rod.

However, one need only tune into a game on the ESPN networks immediately after the loss to see the narrative taking shape. “Rosen throws two incompletions from the Texas A&M 5-yard line,” the Bottom Line declared.

One of those incompletions was the well-thrown ball to an open Roberts. The statement, while narrowly accurate, feels misleading.

Not that Rosen was blameless. He missed Justin Evans up the middle on UCLA’s final possession of regulation, throwing an interception on a drive that could have been the game-winner.

All phases of the UCLA offense had critical miscues, leaving blame to be shared. All phases showed up in crucial situations, too.

The Bruins can go in two directions from Saturday’s loss. One leads to a Pac-12 South title, and the other is another missed opportunity slipping through their hands.

Cashing in opportunities is UCLA’s critical challenge

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