Commentary: UCLA’s choke job robs L.A. of grand return to college football’s big stage

It would have been thrilling to see Los Angeles as the beating heart of a college football Saturday, with UCLA and USC playing as top-10-ranked teams for the first time since Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete were quarterbacking their respective universities.

After UCLA’s shocking 34-28 loss to Arizona in the Rose Bowl on Saturday night, the thrill is gone.

Simply put: What a choke.

Ironically, with UCLA administrators praying for the University of California Regents who meet Wednesday to let them leave for the Big Ten without real punishment, the Bruins could not have behaved more like a Pac-12 football team that suddenly had legitimate aspirations for the College Football Playoff.

What is more Pac-12 than losing a home game to a 3-6 team (now 4-6! Bear Down, Wildcats!) at the exact moment that a clear path to national relevance opened up?

Somehow, in mid-November, it was all there for UCLA, whether the Bruins were actually playoff good or not. Hold serve against Arizona, win the biggest crosstown rivalry game in recent memory against a beatable USC squad, hold serve against that jilted Berkeley bunch and then play the game of their lives against Oregon or Utah in the Pac-12 title game.

The upsets of Nov. 5 — Clemson and Alabama, the most dominant programs of the last decade, both fell out of reasonable playoff contention — paved the road for a one-loss Pac-12 champion to make the field.

UCLA wasn’t alone in exhibiting extreme Pac-12 behavior Saturday night. At least Oregon, which carried a No. 6 CFP ranking into its devastating 37-34 loss to No. 25 Washington in a sullen Autzen Stadium, is actually a card-carrying Pac-12 member, performing its annual role of boosting hopes at conference headquarters only to lose a November head-scratcher.

You could write an entire column about the obvious blunders that Ducks first-year head coach Dan Lanning made to cost his team a victory.

With Oregon and UCLA out of the playoff picture with two losses, only one Pac-12 team controls its own destiny to become the first league team to receive a CFP invite since 2016: Lincoln Riley’s USC Trojans.

Can they actually do it? Beating UCLA, Notre Dame (which escaped with a 35-32 win over Navy) and Oregon in the Pac-12 title game over the next three weeks sure seems more realistic after Saturday. It could be Utah waiting for USC in Las Vegas for the conference title, and anyone who watched the Utes’ 43-42 win over the Trojans in Salt Lake City knows USC should win a rematch.

It’s sad to only be talking about USC’s hopes of a magical run to the sport’s national championship event. UCLA ruined what could have been L.A.’s return to the big stage — beyond literally hosting this year’s CFP championship game Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium.

Yet maybe UCLA’s loss to Arizona is what we needed. Maybe all of us — myself included — needed to stop living in dreamland.

UCLA is not there yet, and the Bruins very well could issue the same reality jolt to USC next weekend. We know the Trojans are flawed, but there’s a lot more empathy for their imperfections with Riley in his first season compared with Chip Kelly in his fifth.

A grandiose setup for next weekend’s crosstown rivalry would have masked the deficiencies living within Kelly’s program. The Bruins haven’t had a dependable defense since the moment UCLA brought him to campus, and they still don’t.

Kelly admitted as much to the night owls still watching late Saturday in the fourth quarter when he elected to go for it on fourth and six from his own 36-yard-line when trailing 31-28 with more than 5 minutes remaining. Kelly knew that his defense wasn’t going to stop Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura, so he may as well trust his fifth-year senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to win the game for his team.

That strategy ended up working out — the Bruins’ defense came up with a miracle stop to hold the Wildcats to a field goal after the offense didn’t convert, setting up Thompson-Robinson for a potential game-winning drive with a minute left. But Kelly’s decision revealed a deeper truth that UCLA fans will be coming to grips with next season and beyond.

The Bruins don’t have a workable defensive plan — in recruiting or in scheme — and Eight Clappers everywhere should be terrified of the prospect of what happens next year when Thompson-Robinson and All-America caliber tailback Zach Charbonnet have left Westwood for the NFL.

The offense deserves some of the blame, too. The Bruins should have been able to score 35 points against a woeful Arizona defense. The amazing Thompson-Robinson kept trying to throw on that cape of his but he could not lift up this program from mediocrity this time. On the last play of the game, he missed an open Jake Bobo in the back of the end zone — a result that was not befitting of the player DTR has become.

He was supposed to make that throw and get us to Saturday with our delusions about two top-10 college football teams living within our midst.

The Bruins shook us awake, and now their whole season will come down to giving USC and its fans that same miserable feeling.

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