ARLINGTON — So close yet so far away.
After Texas QB Tyrone Swoopes hit John Harris with a TD strike with 5:13 left in the contest to take a 17-13 lead, the No. 12 UCLA Bruins looked ripe for the taking.
Then when LB Steve Edmond forced a Jordon James fumble and Paul Boyette recovered on UCLA’s subsequent drive, it all but looked like Texas would leave the Metroplex with Charlie Strong’s first big win in burnt orange.
But in a span of five plays, Bruins backup QB Jerry Neuheisel put those thoughts to rest when he hit WR Jordan Payton with a perfectly thrown 33-yard touchdown pass off a pump-fake, double move with 3:00 minutes remaining as UCLA defeated Texas, 20-17 in front of 60,479 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday night.
“We had that game right there,” said UT’s Harris. “It hurts everybody in the locker room. It was a hard loss. The heartbreak is there. It hurts. It hurts bad.”
“It was positive the way we played, not positive the way we finished,” said Strong.
Texas has now started 1-2 in consecutive seasons for the first time since John Mackovic’s first season in 1992. Texas coach Charlie Strong tried to summarize an evening where moral victories aren’t much help in the win-loss column.
“Just like overall how we battled,” said Strong. “Just can’t give up the big plays. You look at it, we go up by a touchdown, we get the ball back. We just don’t take no time off the clock. And then we end up punting the ball from our territory, and guy has a really good return and get up our hitch and go. But I just like overall how this team bounced back from a week ago. I told them, I said we just keep fighting, keep battling and good things are going to happen. And in these close games, it’s just hard right now. And it’s tough in the locker room because I just know that they just laid it out there and they gave it everything they had.”
Texas took a 10-3 advantage into halftime with momentum and confidence exuding from Austin’s favorite football team. But a missed tackle on the opening play of the 3rd quarter gave the Bruins a spark. Neuheisel hit Ryan Iese with a 3-yard TD pass at the 12:26 mark, tying the game at 10-all and pumping life back into UCLA (3-0).
“We had a missed tackle,” said Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. “We were at the point of attack and there was a 1-on-1 tackle and we didn’t come down with it, but I felt like down in the red zone we had a chance to make a play. We ran into three backs and we had a coverage call. We were trying to make it. We were in the position to make it – to intercept the ball, and we missed that opportunity. And then, of course, at the end the double move. We cannot give up those plays in the game. We gave up two big plays in the second half and that’s the game. That’s 14 points. That’s the difference in the ballgame.”
Swoopes was sharp tonight, going 24-of-34, for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He hit MJ McFarland with a 3-yard TD toss late in the first half, which capped a 14-play, 62-yard march and chewed up almost seven minutes of the clock.
“He continues to get better and better,” Strong said of his sophomore signal-caller. “He made some good throws and managed the offense. He’s getting better and better, week by week.”
After the James fumble, there was talk that UT needed to slow things down from its up-tempo style, attempting to bleed the clock and get that final first down.
“We had been running our hurry up and that got the touchdown to put us ahead,” said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. “We discussed it as a coaching staff and decided to stick with it because we were in a rhythm. Had we gotten a first down and better field position, we would have started milking the clock.”
That decision proved fatal.
UCLA got on the board first when kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn hit a 47-yard field goal capping a 15-play, 61-yard drive. Not to be outdone, Texas kicker Nick Rose drained a 33-yarder early in the 2nd quarter, tying the game at 3-all.
Neuheisel finished 23-of-30, for 178 yards through the air, and two scores. He relieved UCLA’s Heisman hopeful, Brett Hundley, who left the game in the 1st quarter with an apparent elbow injury. Bruins’ coach Jim Mora was unsure of his status next week. Gadget-back Paul Perkins totaled 195 yards – 126 rushing, 69 receiving – to help thwart the Texas defensive attack. His 58-yard jaunt early in the 2nd half was a back-breaker.
Senior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson suffered an apparent ankle injury, but Strong was unsure after the game.
In the end, it was a missed opportunity.
“There’s no doubt this is a missed opportunity,” said Texas senior corner back Quandre Diggs. “We didn’t capitalize on what we should have capitalized on. We lost. Doesn’t matter how hard we fought.”
Conference play is right around the corner. The veterans on this team know how important Big 12 play is.
“It is real big,” said Harris, who finished with 60 yards on four grabs, and one TD. “I will try to step up and help us out with that. You know, [we] finally broke through that wall, the luck just hasn’t been on our side. We are just going to keep fighting and try to get it back on track just like we did last year. We will try to get into Big 12 [play] and get a Big 12 title. Get back to those 30 minutes [from a title] like we were last year against Baylor.”
Strong, looking somber and exhausted in the post-game press conference, eagerly awaits getting back to practice. Even in such a gut-wrenching defeat, Strong looked for the positives.
“We’ll see what kind of a team we are and how we bounce back,” said Strong, whose team has a week off before they start Big 12 play at Kansas in two weeks. “Last week, it wasn’t our football team. Last week, that wasn’t us. It’s positive the way we played but it wasn’t positive the way we finished.”