By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PASADENA, Calif. — A scene that occurred with numbing regularity after University of Virginia football games in 2014 was repeated Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl, where head coach Mike London fielded questions about his offense’s ineffectiveness.
“Obviously that’s a very good football team we played, and we didn’t help by not being able to convert on some red-zone opportunities to score touchdowns,” London said after UVa lost 34-16 to 13th-ranked UCLA in the season opener for both teams.
“Getting field goals is fine, but in a game like this, playing against a good team, you gotta come away with [more] points.”
Thrice in the first half promising drives stalled for the Cavaliers. In each case UVa ended up settling for a field goal by senior Ian Frye: the first from 42 yards, the second from 31 and the third from 19.
That the Wahoos were able to move the ball well was a positive, redshirt junior quarterback Matt Johns said, “but then when it comes down to it, you gotta put the ball in the end zone.”
The Bruins, behind true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, were considerably more productive, and they went into intermission leading 17-9. At halftime, Rosen was 17-for-22 passing for 175 passes and two TDs.
“You can’t kick field goals and win games, especially against a good team like UCLA,” Virginia offensive guard Ross Burbank said. “The biggest thing is just putting it in and scoring touchdowns in the red zone.”
The second half brought more frustration for UVa as the Bruins seized control of the game. UCLA stretched its lead to 34-9 before the `Hoos finally scored their lone touchdown, on a 19-yard pass from Johns to junior tailback Taquan Mizzell with 3:29 remaining.
The Bruins’ defense “did a really good job in the second half, coming out strong, coming out with some different looks and mixing it up a little bit,” Burbank said.
Johns finished 21-of-35 passing for 238 yards, with one interception. But in the third quarter, against a fierce pass rush, he completed only 2 of 10 attempts.
“They got to me a little bit,” Johns said. “They’re well-coached. They didn’t do much that we haven’t seen before, but they just beat us in a couple matchups. It happens, it’s football, but we gotta correct that and not let it happen again.”
Problems abounded Saturday for UVa, which dropped its 11th consecutive road game, this one in front of a crowd of 68,615. The power-running game the Cavaliers hope will be their offensive trademark this season never materialized against UCLA, which held them to 98 yards on 34 carries.
“It was frustrating,” Johns said. “We had a couple good runs here and there, but we needed to have more of those.”
UCLA had plenty of those runs, totaling 152 yards on the ground. In all, Virginia surrendered 503 yards in the college debut of Rosen, who completed 28 of 35 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns and was not intercepted.
“I did not see a deer-in-the-headlights look with him at all,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “I didn’t think that I would, either. I didn’t know how he’d perform, but I didn’t get the feeling that it was going to be too big for him … He’s a mature young man and he handled it well.”
In last year’s opener, Virginia lost 28-20 to UCLA at Scott Stadium but sacked Rosen’s predecessor at quarterback, Brett Hundley, five times. The `Hoos recorded only one sack and forced no turnovers Saturday.
The Bruins’ offensive line “made some improvements [from last year],” UVa defensive tackle said David Dean. “I think they schemed us up pretty well protection-wise.”
London agreed. “Their offensive line is a better offensive line than I remember last year. They were really good up front there. They did what they had to do, and we didn’t do enough.”
In his first start, middle linebacker Micah Kiser led UVa with 12 tackles, including one for loss. But he wasn’t satisfied with his play — or that of the defense.
“Too many mental errors, and we didn’t really get after the quarterback at all,” said Kiser, a redshirt sophomore from Baltimore.
The secondary struggled, too, senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson acknowledged.
“We can do a better job in the back end covering, and our D-line can definitely do a better job of getting pressure on the QB,” Nicholson said. “We gotta work together. We gotta be in unison. We cover, they get sacks. They get pressure, we get interceptions.
“It’s not just the D-line, it’s not just the secondary. It’s both together.”
Under cloudless skies, the `Hoos broke out new white helmets for their first game at the storied Rose Bowl, and the afternoon started auspiciously for London’s team. Virginia received the opening kickoff and then quickly crossed midfield, thanks in large part to completions by Johns of 17 yards (to senior wide receiver Canaan Severin) and 19 yards (to Mizzell).
On third-and-8 from the UCLA 30, however, Johns’ pass to tailback Albert Reid gained only 5 yards, and on came Frye. His kick made it 3-0, but the lead didn’t last long.
By late in the first quarter, the Bruins had gone ahead for good. Virginia had an opportunity to pull to 14-13 late in the second quarter, but a pass from Johns to Severin on third-and-goal from the UCLA 6 gained only 4 yards.
“I gotta turn up and make a play,” Severin said. “That’s on me. I gotta score.”
On fourth down, London declined to gamble. Instead, he sent out Frye for the third time.
“We wanted to get points,” London said.
For tailbacks Mizzell and Reid, there was little room to run Saturday. Mizzell, though, made an impact in the passing game, finishing with eight receptions for 100 yards, both career highs.
On his TD catch, a throwback from Johns, Mizzell showed off his superb instincts as a receiver, adjusting to the ball when it was in the air to come down with the reception.
“I’m going to play hard till the end, and when my number is called I’m going to make the play,” Mizzell said.
The touchdown drive didn’t change the outcome of the game, but to the Cavaliers it held significance anyway.
“It just shows the offense we can score,” said Severin, who finished with five catches for 58 yards. “It was good. I’m happy for [Mizzell]. I’m happy for Matt Johns. They got in the zone a little bit, and I’m happy for the team we got in the zone to show we can score. We need to do that more consistently if we want to win games.”
Another major challenge awaits UVa next weekend. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game to be shown on ABC, Virginia hosts 11th-ranked Notre Dame, which opened with a rout of Texas.
“We’re going to have to do better, particularly going into Scott Stadium next week,” London said.
The ‘Hoos need to review videotape of the UCLA game, Burbank said, and “take the good things and take the bad things and learn from them.”
Nicholson said: “No question. We will get better, we will learn from our mistakes, and we will progress.”
Kiser, a few feet away from Nicholson, echoed that promise.
“It’s the first game,” Kiser said. “We’re going to get better.”