PASADENA, Calif. — Perhaps one play can’t be described as a turning point in a game in which one team methodically pulled ahead of the other, but in many ways, an over-the-shoulder, no-look backward incomplete pass summarized LSU’s season-opening 38-27 loss to UCLA.
Late in the third quarter Saturday night, the Tigers still trailed by a touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Max Johnson dropped back on third down from inside the red zone. As it had all game, UCLA blitzed.
Multiple defenders broke through the line. Johnson retreated. He turned, saw the Bruins swarming him and tossed the ball with his back turned to the line of scrimmage. He jumped as he released the desperate heave. UCLA linebacker Carl Jones Jr. drove him into the grass inside the Rose Bowl. The ball fell incomplete.
Johnson stood up and left the field. LSU converted a field goal. The Tigers trailed by four then, still within striking distance of a comeback, but UCLA picked through No. 16 LSU’s defense on the ensuing drive. The Bruins then forced a punt and never looked back, draining as much time as possible and zapping the energy from LSU’s sideline.
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LSU (0-1) had arrived at this game under unusual circumstances. A week earlier, it loaded two trucks with equipment and evacuated as Hurricane Ida approached the coast. The Category 4 storm devastated southeast Louisiana, affecting families and leaving behind swaths of destruction.
The Tigers spent the next week practicing in Houston until it flew directly to Los Angeles. The team applied black stickers shaped like Louisiana on the backs of the helmets, conscious of the struggle so many people faced back home as it played a game.
This night could have inspired confidence as LSU tried to rebound from a 5-5 season and prove the program can return to national championship contention two years removed from its last title. The Tigers may still complete a successful season. But a day that began with optimism ended in frustration.
Some of the issues that plagued LSU last season continued against UCLA. The defense allowed 470 total yards, 210 on the ground. The offensive line struggled to open running lanes. And then there were new ones, mostly caused by UCLA’s blitz packages.
The Bruins (2-0) sent extra defenders throughout the game like they had last weekend against Hawaii. The pressure forced Johnson to make quick decisions and affected his timing with LSU’s receivers. He finished 26 of 46 for 330 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
LSU had to put the offense on Johnson, who had won his previous two career starts, because the running game generated little production. The offensive line never controlled the line of scrimmage, often pushed back by UCLA’s defensive front. For a stretch in the first half, LSU almost abandoned the run. The Tigers averaged 1.9 yards per carry. They had 3 yards rushing at halftime.
On the other side, LSU’s defense began allowing a string of explosive plays in the second quarter. After the Tigers scored the first touchdown, UCLA answered on the next play from scrimmage as Greg Dulcich, a tight end nicknamed “Baby Gronk,” caught a pass and ran 75 yards, juking safety Major Burns along the way.
The Bruins scored again on their next possession. They gained 146 yards over those six plays. They never trailed again.
LSU turned an interception by sophomore cornerback Eli Ricks into a field goal before halftime. They trailed by four after the break and tried to re-establish the run on their first drive, bringing in freshman tackle Garrett Dellinger as an extra lineman to create more push. The first attempt by Tyrion Davis-Price gained eight yards.
But six plays later, Johnson scrambled to his left as he tried to escape pressure once again. He tried to dump off a pass to sophomore tight end Kole Taylor. Instead, he threw the ball directly to UCLA linebacker Caleb Johnson, who returned the ball inside the red zone.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson soon waited inside the pocket as a play developed. UCLA had motioned three players before the snap. Ricks appeared to try to call a timeout. One of UCLA’s receivers ran a crossing route amidst the confusion. Thompson-Robinson threw the ball as soon as his receiver passed linebacker Navonteque Strong. Touchdown.
UCLA continued to add to its lead. After Johnson’s desperate backwards heave, the Bruins scored touchdowns on their next two possessions. The second came on a 45-yard reception by wide receiver Kyle Phillips, who sprinted down the sideline and broke a tackle by All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.
As Phillips and his teammates celebrated in the end zone and UCLA’s fans chanted “overrated” about LSU, Stingley slightly hunched over. He stood alone in the corner of the end zone, shocked he had missed the tackle and UCLA had stretched its lead even further.
Though LSU scored once more as sophomore Kayshon Boutte reached the end zone for the third time, the game was out of reach.
The Tigers had entered this iconic venue hoping to announce their return to the top of college football. They left with their heads down as blue and yellow confetti burst over the sidelines, showering the celebrating UCLA fans. LSU has an entire season ahead of it. But questions now surround the team.
What we learned, what’s trending and final thoughts from an ugly opener in the Rose Bowl.
PASADENA, Calif. — As day melted into night and the San Gabriel Mountains rising over the venerable old Rose Bowl disappeared from view, the p…