He was a better player, but the bonafide UCLA star wasn’t quarterbacking the best football program in Southern California. He was more polished and dynamic, but he didn’t win the game. He won the QB battle.
This was by far the most impressive performance of Josh Rosen’s career, only to fall short of a victory for crosstown bragging rights. He was so brilliant, that the 28-23 loss was forgotten as the Bruins gifted passer outshined the USC quarterback. A tug of war ensued between two premier college quarterbacks over potentially the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Rosen played better than Sam Darnold on Saturday to win the QB duel, showing brilliance, athleticism and a big arm that made him win the Battle of L.A. award for Best Quarterback. It was poetic that such a performance came against the rival Trojans. That he even completed 32 of 52 passes for 421 yards with three touchdowns and an interception is astounding. That’s the most ever by a Bruin against USC.
Even with the loss, the Bruins flashy quarterback still one-upped Darnold, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 264 yards without a touchdown, threw an interception and ran for a score. Rosen wasn’t the betting favorite at the beginning of the season, but he’s the proven No. 1 college quarterback in L.A. He hit his intended receivers, he was efficient and outperformed his counterpart, putting the ball exactly where it needed to be for good gains.
While the Bruins never seemed out of the game, they simply didn’t have enough to match the Trojans’ effort. UCLA is hardly at USC’s level, but the winner of the popularity contest was Rosen. Such comparisons to Darnold, the leader in the Heisman race at the beginning of the season, make perfect sense. So behind the brilliance of the 20-year-old kid with a limitless ceiling, UCLA didn’t perfectly execute and didn’t finish its drives on every possession, playing the type of game that could get head coach Jim Mora fired.
Sometimes Rosen can be reckless and careless with the ball. But he’s playing the position as well as it’s ever been played. At times Saturday, he missed his intended receivers. Late in the third quarter, after throwing behind Christian Pabico on third down, Rosen walked off the field and furiously slapped his helmet with both hands three times. He grabbed his face mask tightly and pulled down on his helmet as he blamed himself.
Then there were plays where Rosen, who made a few poor decisions, misfired on numerous opportunities that he had in the red zone. The ball came loose, and the Trojans recovered it late in the first half, capitalizing on Rosen’s miscues that also contributed to the Bruins loss. He fumbled with the Bruins driving late in the first half, then he lofted a pass into the arms of Marvell Tell III after UCLA got down to the USC’s 14-yard line.
The Trojans not only spoiled Rosen’s passing brilliance, but also the Bruins’ spirit. The game was, literally, forgettable but the numbers he put up were unforgettable. He exhibited solid touch on his passes whether long or short. He showed fortitude to give his team a fighting chance as he validated his place in a debate over the city’s top quarterback.
Rosen was so good in the Bruins loss at the Coliseum that everybody is talking about a player from the losing team. Midway in the first quarter, he aired out a perfect rainbow of a throw for 41 yards to Lasley, he zipped a pass to Austin Roberts for 15 yards, then he found Lasley in the corner of the end zone with an 11-yard pass for a tying touchdown. He delivered to his spots where the receivers could make catches, and it still wasn’t enough. He fired rockets over the middle of the field to his favorite targets that took smarts, guts and accuracy, and it still was the same outcome from a year ago in spite of Rosen doing everything he could to try to will his Bruins to victory.
The amazing and ridiculous numbers compiled by the UCLA quarterback in the crosstown showdown eclipsed USC’s punt-return trickeration. Certainly, the Bruins had been caught off guard when the Trojans ran a trick play and executed it. It worked and USC went up 7-0, with Ajene Harris lined up deep on the right side of the field. He put on an act and the Bruin punt coverers were fooled as Michael Pittman caught the ball on the left sideline and returned it for a 72-yard touchdown.
The highlight of the game was Rosen’s throw that deflected off two Trojans’ defensive backs before Jordan Lasley hauled in the circus catch for a 43-yard completion. No, Rosen was not perfect, and his team was overmatched but he never quit. More mentally tough now than ever, and with a bevy of evaluators grading him, he doesn’t stop playing until the clock ticks down to zero. There were 20 NFL scouts at this game, observing and evaluating Rosen and Darnold from the press box.
His face still calm, Rosen threw a laser, this one softly falling into Lasley’s arms for a 27-yard score with 2:43 to play that trimmed the deficit to five. The Trojans recovered the ball in the final three minutes, as the Bruins didn’t gain possession after a failed onside kick.
It was Lasley, the only Bruins receiver who scored all three touchdowns and finished with 10 catches for 204 yards, making the big plays in UCLA’s annual rivalry game. It was Rosen, the Bruins quarterback who had more first downs and converted 10 third downs, looking more like the winner than the guy who was defeated.
For a third straight year, the Bruins have lost to their arch rivals. On a night when Rosen wasn’t enough for the Bruins, he still was the champion of quarterbacks.