In the final moments, when he needed to rally his team once more, Josh Rosen found himself confronted by something even more threatening than a defender on the verge of a sack.
His own reluctance to give up on a play.
It had become a maddening trend for the quarterback throughout the second half of the No. 25 Bruins’ 48-45 loss to Memphis on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Rosen had brought his team back from a 10-point deficit midway through the third quarter with two touchdown passes. He couldn’t complete another comeback in the final minute with the Bruins trailing by three points. He forced a pass into coverage that led to an offensive pass interference penalty on teammate Theo Howard, and a subsequent fourth-down pass was broken up with 56 seconds left, ending the Bruins’ hopes.
“Just trying to play hero ball,” Rosen said. “It’s not needed. You gotta play within the system.”
Rosen’s decision-making was hardly the only culprit on a day when UCLA (2-1) committed a rash of penalties, including another targeting call that led to an ejection, and its short-handed defense allowed six touchdown passes — as many as it had surrendered in its previous four games combined going back to last season.
But Rosen’s regrets were the primary topic after he also suffered his first two interceptions of the season.
“One of the reasons that at times he tends to do some of the things with the ball that he does is because he refuses to concede a play,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “I think the next step for him in becoming a great quarterback is getting us to the next down, and for some reason that’s difficult for him to do right now.”
Rosen had a chance to make up for his mistakes on his team’s final drive after UCLA defensive back Octavius Spencer intercepted a pass in the end zone on a fake field-goal attempt by Memphis, giving the Bruins the ball at their own 20-yard line with 3:01 left in the game.
“We’re going down to win the game,” UCLA receiver Darren Andrews said. “That’s what the thought process was.”
The Bruins picked up two first downs before Rosen, under pressure, forced the pass that prompted Howard to grab a defensive back who was in position to make an interception. It led to a 15-yard penalty on the Bruins.
“He saved me,” Rosen said of Howard. “That was a terrible play by me.”
UCLA eventually picked up 20 yards on third and 25 when Rosen completed a short pass to tailback Jalen Starks, who bulled ahead while being pushed forward by a scrum of teammates. That brought up a fourth and five. Rosen’s pass intended for Andrews was broken up, giving Memphis (2-0) the ball back with less than a minute to play. Game over.
“He kind of came in between me, he undercut it,” Andrews said of Tigers defensive back Jacobi Francis. “Went through his hands and hit me in my chest, so I mean that’s a distraction drill, I’ve just got to be able to come up with that.”
Rosen was alternately brilliant and exasperating on a day he threw for 463 yards and four touchdowns, completing passes into tight coverage while also throwing a couple that unnecessarily ended up in the hands of defenders.
Rosen threw a pass across his body after being chased out of the pocket midway through the third quarter that Memphis linebacker Tim Hart intercepted and ran back 60 yards for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 41-31 lead.
“We can’t throw it across the body for a pick,” UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said.
Rosen rallied the Bruins, finding receiver Jordan Lasley, who made a twisting 21-yard touchdown catch, and then tight end Austin Roberts over the middle for a 22-yard touchdown that gave UCLA a 45-41 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Memphis retook the lead when quarterback Riley Ferguson connected with Phil Mayhue for a three-yard touchdown that gave the Tigers a 48-45 advantage with 9:56 left. Ferguson completed 23 of 38 passes for 398 yards and six touchdowns with one interception.
Rosen quickly drove UCLA back downfield, the Bruins reaching the Memphis 19-yard line. But with a blitzing, unblocked defender rushing toward him, Rosen unloaded a pass that was intercepted by Tigers cornerback T.J. Carter, who returned the ball 42 yards to the UCLA 48.
The Bruins eventually got the stop they needed when Memphis’ fake field goal failed. The Tigers’ holder flipped the ball over his head to kicker Riley Patterson, whose underthrown pass was intercepted by Spencer.
UCLA and Rosen had one more chance. They couldn’t convert.
“I got caught up because I’m trying to play hero ball,” Rosen said. “There are certain play calls where it’s not built to be done. That’s where I’m getting in trouble and I just gotta play smarter football.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter