UCLA Bruins back-up quarterback Jerry Neuheisel hadn't had many opportunities to stretch the field after replacing star starter Brett Hundley early in the game after Hundley suffered a left elbow injury on a scramble.
But when Neuheisel pump-faked on 1st and 10 from the Texas 33-yard line, Texas Longhorns junior cornerback Duke Thomas bit on the fake and UCLA wide receiver Jordan Payton was sprung for an easy touchdown catch down the sidelines to provide the final margin in a narrow 20-17 UCLA win over Texas on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
With a final chance to win the game, Texas senior wide receiver John Harris dropped a short pass on first down, putting the Horns behind the chain and ultimately resulting in a bounced pass by Tyrone Swoopes on 4th and 7 to decide the game.
Moments earlier, Harris had been the hero, catching an eight-yard touchdown pass from Swoopes on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that consumed four minutes and gave the Horns the lead. Harris had kept the drive alive with a six-yard catch on 3rd and 5 before junior running back Johnathan Gray showed some explosiveness bouncing a run outside and breaking off a 31-yard gain, exactly the type of play the Horns had trouble producing against BYU last week.
Down the field, Harris celebrated after pancaking a UCLA defender to help Gray pick up some extra yardage.
The offense showed improvement from last week, as the offensive line generally played better in paving the way for 4.2 yards per carry and Swoopes had a good outing, going 24-of-34 for 196 yards and two touchdowns, including a lofted touchdown pass to junior tight end MJ McFarland in the second quarter.
Several plays before, Swoopes had kept the drive alive after vacating the pocket on 4th and 8 from the UCLA 38-yard line and delivering a pass to Harris, who extended for an impressive 33-yard catch.
After a holding penalty by junior offensive guard Sedrick Flowers, Swoopes set up the touchdown pass by scrambling down the sideline for 10 big yards on his longest run of the evening.
Pop passes using slant routes to junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson on plays blocked for the Power play that the line had trouble blocking last week against the Cougars represented a welcome addition to the offense. And senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley, who played despite a head injury sustained last week, was used on push passes to provide some threat in the perimeter game in another adjustment by play caller Shawn Watson
While the offense improved as a whole, the defense still struggled at times, giving up 215 yards on the ground to the Bruins, even without Hundley's impressive scrambling ability that burned the Horns several times before his injury. UCLA running back Paul Perkins didn't score a touchdown, but gained a career-high 126 yards on 26 carries, including a 58-yard burst early in the second half made possible when he broke the attempted tackles of Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Jason Hall.
Part of the problem for the defense, especially in the second half, may have been a leg injury to senior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson in the second half. Jackson was carted off the field, but it's not known how much time he could possibly miss or even the exact nature of his injury.
Texas also suffered from special teams and coaching mistakes. The game began with head coach Charlie Strong visibly frustrated on the sideline after UCLA won the toss, deferred, and then had Texas decide to kick the ball off, which ultimately resulted in the Bruins receiving the ball to start both halves. And in the fourth quarter on the final UCLA drive, Texas could only stop the clock once after using two timeouts early in the game.
Special teams were also an area of struggle for Texas once again. Junior Nick Rose kicked the ball out of bounds for the second time this season when he appeared to attempt to angle a kick towards the sideline after the go-ahead touchdown.
Then, after the Horns forced the only turnover of the game when senior linebacker Steve Edmond knocked a ball loose from UCLA running back Jordon James that sophomore defensive tackle Paul Boyette recovered, the offense went three-and-out and gave up a 45-yard punt return to UCLA defensive back Ishmael Adams.
Unsurprisingly, UCLA immediately tried to produce a big play with the double move to Payton and were able to do so as Thomas suffered the type of mental mistake that characterized his worst moments in 2013.
There were also time-management issues for Texas after the UCLA turnover that gave the offense a chance to run their four-minute drill and kill the clock. But instead of running time off, the Horns ran plays with significant time remaining on the play clock, poor decisions that were ultimately made irrelevant by the big punt return and subsequent touchdown pass.
So while the game represented a significant improvement from the no-show in the third quarter against the Cougars last week, there is still plenty of room for this team to get better.
The offensive line appeared to do so with some more variation in the running game, though sophomore Kent Perkins was a major disappointment at right tackle with two critical holding penalties in pass protection and several other miscues that allowed easy shots on Swoopes.
And the running ability of the Texas starting quarterback still appears lacking. He seemed too willing to give up the ball up on the zone read even when the read players were crashing and struggled to make opponent miss in the open field when he was scrambling -- his long run on the game went for only 10 yards.
On the positive side, Swoopes was throwing bullets all game, continuing to show improved accuracy on short throws and working more towards the middle of the field with the pop passes to Johnson.
Ultimately, however, the long passing play on the day was still 33 yards to John Harris, with no other receiver producing a catch of more than 20 yards -- the margin for error simply isn't high enough for this group to drive the ball down the field in short chunks. Competing with Baylor and Oklahoma in upcoming weeks will require some big plays.
The injury to Hundley was probably worth a touchdown or so in keeping the game close, as UCLA went to a more conservative game plan with Neuheisel at quarterback. In that regard, the ability of the Bruins to impose their will in the running game presents a major concern moving forward for a Texas front seven that may be without Jackson for several weeks and still suffers from the linebackers disappearing. Everyone in the stadium knew that the Bruins wanted to run the football and the Horns weren't able to get stops.
In that context, hanging tough with a Bruins team that may still be somewhat overrated at No. 12 nationally isn't suggestive of a program that is close to breaking through.
Facing a tough schedule, the game against UCLA represented a chance to pull off the type of upset that would earn some rare positive national attention for a program that desperately needs something to create a sense of resurgence.
With one pump fake and a lofted pass, the back-up quarterback for the Bruins ripped that opportunity away from a team that may still be in the market for moral victories.