The harmony between mentor and protege in their first game together Sunday night at the Rose Bowl produced both a 34-point deficit and the greatest comeback in Bruins history. All that ultimately mattered for UCLA was that it emerged on the desired side of a wild 45-44 victory over Texas A&M, a final score that was still producing double-takes a day later.
"lol aye last night still don't feel real," UCLA safety Jaleel Wadood tweeted Monday.
UCLA's 38-10 halftime deficit was easy to authenticate. It came courtesy of a fast, aggressive Texas A&M defense and a UCLA offense that seemed incapable of delivering any significant counterpunches. Meanwhile, the Bruins' plan to utilize an extra defensive back against A&M's spread offense backfired as they were gashed for one big play after another.
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott, addressing reporters in the back of the Rose Bowl press box at halftime, mused about his constituents going undefeated over the weekend "until today," prompting a question about whether he was conceding a UCLA loss.
"We did some research as to what kind of record this will set if they come back and win and this will be one of the greatest comebacks in UCLA football history," Scott said. "I don't think we have the answer to that yet."
Hope also lingered in the Bruins' locker room. A huge New England Patriots fan, Fisch brought up his favorite NFL team's furious second-half rally from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime during the most recent Super Bowl.
Of course, things never looked quite as hopeless for the Patriots as they did for the Bruins when Daniel LaCamera's 48-yard field goal sunk UCLA into a 44-10 hole with 4:08 left in the third quarter.
A fortuitous parallel emerged when Bruins tailback Soso Jamabo ran for a six-yard touchdown with 2:06 left in the third quarter — the exact same point in the game that Tom Brady had sparked New England's comeback with a touchdown pass. But Jamabo's score initially looked like it would serve only to pretty up a lopsided defeat, the Bruins still trailing by 27 points.
UCLA coach Jim Mora later acknowledged he didn't think his team could come all the way back before receiver Darren Andrews followed with back-to-back touchdown catches to pull UCLA within 44-31 midway through the fourth quarter. The second score was a gift after Texas A&M nickel back Deshawn Capers-Smith allowed a pass that Rosen had floated into coverage to slip through his fingers and into Andrews' hands on the way to a 42-yard touchdown.
"I saw that the ball was short so at the time, I was like, 'Oh, no, I'm about to have to tackle him, it's about to be a pick,' " Andrews said. "I just focused on the ball. I saw the ball go through his hands and I was ready for it."
Texas A&M's offense, which had been so unstoppable in the first half, began to sputter once quarterback Nick Starkel departed in the third quarter with an apparent ankle injury. His replacement Kellen Mond, a true freshman playing in his first college game, struggled to sustain drives, completing only two of 14 passes in the second half.
Mond faced a UCLA defense that shed the extra defensive back after halftime, reverting to its base 4-3 formation and forcing its defensive backs into man-to-man coverage without a safety net.
Bruins defensive coordinator Tom Bradley also sensed a change in attitude among the teams.
"You could see that Texas A&M had kind of thought that the game was over," Bradley said, "and our kids never quit."
Belief ran strong in UCLA safety Adarius Pickett. Remembering a weakness that special teams coordinator Scott White had spotted in Texas A&M's field-goal protection package earlier in the week, Pickett broke through to get a piece of a 43-yard attempt with 4:41 left that fell short.
Rosen benefited from more good fortune when he tried to throw away a pass with a defender in his face and the ball found UCLA receiver Theo Howard in the front of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown with 3:10 left. His team's deficit reduced to 44-38, Fisch said he felt the Bruins could get the touchdown they needed to complete the comeback.
Fisch helped make it happen, calling for a fake spike in the final minute. It was a play the Bruins had routinely tried since the first day of spring practice, with spotty results.
"I think it's worked like maybe once or twice," Rosen said.
Rosen pantomimed the motion of throwing the ball to the ground before pulling it back and finding Jordan Lasley for a 10-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone with 43 seconds left.
One defensive stop later the miracle comeback was complete, the Bruins having staged the second-biggest rally in the history of the FBS. Only Michigan State's 36-point comeback victory against Northwestern in 2006 was bigger.
Rosen threw for 292 of his career-high 491 yards and all four of his touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"That's a good quarter," Fisch quipped.
Mora traced the roots of the rally to early January, when players returned from winter break and the festering disappointment of last season's 4-8 record.
"Every day since," Mora said, "I've just seen an attitude and a camaraderie, a sense of purpose, a brotherhood that started to form."
It was an auspicious start to the relationship between Rosen and Fisch, which hadn't produced much besides heartache through the first three quarters.
Said Rosen: "Breaking in a new offense, it took a little time to get rolling."
Said Fisch: "It did take some time, but with that time came some efficiency there in that fourth quarter."
Rosen's heroics allowed the Bruins to momentarily shrug off their inability to run the ball (2.5 yards per carry) or stop the Aggies' ground game (6.1 yard per carry) until Mond was tackled a yard short of the spot he needed to reach on fourth down with 20 seconds left.
UCLA could even forgive its latest in a series of dropped passes going back to last season. Two plays after bobbling a pass near the first-down marker, Lasley pulled in the touchdown that completed the most improbable rally in UCLA history.
"You know, it is what it is," Rosen said. "I mean, maybe if he had caught that we wouldn't have won, so I'm happy he dropped it."