A light rain fell on the Rose Bowl in muggy, 90-degree evening heat during the miserable first 40 minutes of UCLA's season opener. Thousands of dampened fans had already hit the exits with their Bruins trailing by 34 points.
They missed nothing less than the greatest comeback in UCLA history and a defining moment in Josh Rosen's three-year quest to reach his enormous potential.
Down 44-10 late in the third quarter, the Bruins scored touchdowns on five consecutive possessions. Rosen's fake spike and ensuing 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Lasley with 34 seconds left capped one of the most flabbergasting victories in college football history, 45-44 over Texas A&M .
"It got real bleak at a certain point," said Rosen, who passed for 292 yards and four TDs in that frantic fourth quarter alone. "Real, real bleak. It's not that we lost hope, because obviously we never did. But we just wanted to play good football. We wanted to be proud. We wanted to give our fans something to be proud of."
The ones who stayed were proud, all right: In the first college football game ever played at the Rose Bowl on a Sunday, UCLA (1-0) made the second-biggest comeback in FBS history, surpassed only by Michigan State's rally past Northwestern from a 35-point deficit in 2006.
Rosen was at the center of it all, shaking off several early sacks and stalled drives to lead an epic rally in the first game of his junior season. After beginning his career in 2015 as the nation's most prized quarterback prospect, Rosen missed half of UCLA's miserable 2016 season with an injury and became better known for his off-field candor than his on-field brilliance.
Rosen is back in the Heisman Trophy race after this stunner on national television, and the Bruins are in the Pac-12 race if their quarterback keeps his play at the sky-high level he demonstrated in the second half.
"He's made a lot of progress, both on and off the field," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "We've seen it, but it's been overshadowed by those statements that he made a few months ago. ... What we have seen, what his teammates have seen, is a young man who has matured tremendously and become a great leader."
It's tough to list everything accomplished by Rosen and his teammates during their improbable surge after being thoroughly outplayed by A&M for the first 40 minutes. Not only did the UCLA offense convert fourth downs and repeatedly succeed on high-risk plays, but Rosen's receivers found space that didn't exist in the first half.
Rosen hit them time after time, going 26 for 36 after halftime with 12 second-half completions to Caleb Wilson alone.
"No one lost hope, but at a certain point, you're not really looking at the scoreboard anymore," Rosen said. "You're kind of like, 'We've just got to put our head down and play football. We've just got to execute.' You want to go back to the film tomorrow and be proud of what you did in the third and fourth quarter. You can't look at the score when something looks like that."
But even after Rosen went 35 of 59 for 491 yards in the third-biggest passing performance in UCLA history, he remained his normal, candid self.
That 16-yard TD throw to Theo Howard with 3:10 left to trim A&M's lead to six points? Rosen admits he was trying to throw it away, but his hand was hit by a defender — and Howard sneaked underneath the defense to catch the underthrown ball anyway.
Rosen also missed a read and should have thrown an interception moments earlier — but the pass went right through the hands of A&M's Deshawn Capers-Smith, who practically could have made a fair catch on the ball, and landed in Darren Andrews' arms for a 42-yard TD.
Rosen didn't ignore how close the Bruins came to a dismaying loss, but he saw every fortunate break as a symbol of growth for the entire roster following last year's 4-8 campaign.
With a tough schedule coming up after Saturday's short-week visit from Hawaii, the Bruins have plenty of growth opportunities coming up — but they'll always have the memories of a magical night.
"We were an inch away from losing that game probably 10 times," Rosen said. "I just got lucky (on the pass to Howard). ... I mean, the things that had to go right to win this game were incredible."
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