Bruins defense did its part in comeback against Cougars
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Linebacker Josh Woods and the rest of the victorious UCLA traveling party already knew how their improbable 67-63 win at Washington State had unfolded. Still, they couldn’t help but watch a replay of the third-largest comeback in FBS history on their charter flight back home.
“I couldn’t script a better movie ending for that game,” Woods said. “It was just fun time, a great team win.”
What stood out to wide receiver Kyle Philips on the tiny seatback screens early Sunday morning was the same reaction he had during the second half when the Bruins had started to rally back after trailing 49-17 midway through the third quarter — that a defense that would end up allowing 720 yards of total offense and nine touchdown passes to the Cougars had provided a critical spark.
Woods recovered two fumbles and intercepted a pass, accounting for three of the defense’s six takeaways against Washington State. UCLA (1-3, 1-0 Pac-12) forced just two turnovers during its three nonconference losses.
The redshirt senior thought Washington State was susceptible to takeaways because the wide receivers were “loose” in holding the ball. That suspicion proved to be the case, with Woods recovering a fumble with 2:27 remaining in the fourth quarter that set up the winning 15-yard touchdown pass from Dorian Thompson-Robinson to Demetric Felton.
Coach Chip Kelly praised Woods for not giving up on the play even after the whistle had blown, jumping on a fumble forced by linebacker Krys Barnes. It was Woods’ immediate recovery that resulted in the change of possession after video review determined Washington State wide receiver Easop Winston Jr. was not down before the ball came loose.
“Josh was rushing the passer, but it was a byproduct of his effort in turning and running to the football, which we practice every day,” Kelly said. “But with 2:38 to go in the game, he’s really doing it.”
The sequence was emblematic of the determination that fueled UCLA’s comeback.
“You have to keep that mindset the whole game,” Woods said. “You can’t let up no matter what the score is.”
Woods would know about big comebacks. He was a junior when UCLA rallied from a 34-point deficit to beat Texas A&M 45-44 to open the 2017 season, second only to when Michigan State overcame a 35-point margin to defeat Northwestern in 2006.
“That’s my second big comeback, and those times are special,” Woods said. “You always remember them.”
But those Bruins were unable to carry the momentum from that win through the rest of the season, finishing 6-7. Coach Jim Mora was fired after the loss to rival Southern California, and Kelly was hired six days later.
Kelly’s ballyhooed arrival has not yet turned UCLA into a consistent winner, in part because of an underperforming defense that has failed to produce takeaways and tackles for loss at the same rate the defense did during his successful stint at Oregon. While this win could represent a turning point in his tenure after going 3-12 through his first 14 games in Westwood, Kelly went out of his way to emphasize that the Bruins are not a finished product yet, pointing to the number of missed tackles that allowed Washington State to amass so many points and yards.
“Fortunately for us, in a shootout game, we were prepared to play in a shootout game and capitalized on it,” Kelly said. “But last week’s game doesn’t have any bearing on this week’s game, and that’s what I think our players have to understand. We played well last Saturday ’cause we practiced well during the week. That’s the real correlation that we’re trying to hit home with our players.”
The message seems to have taken hold, as Woods said he had moved past the win as soon as practice started on Monday morning.
“We put it to bed right now,” Woods said. “Now it’s Arizona.”