The Pac-12 South Division champions for a second straight year, the UCLA Bruins hardly resembled their 2011 selves while romping to a 9-3 record in the regular season. Led by quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin, they nearly upset conference champion Stanford in the Pac-12 title game to earn a berth in the Rose Bowl, their home stadium. Not much further away was the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, where UCLA faced the explosive Big 12 offense of Baylor. A year after the departure of RGIII, Bears quarterback Nick Florence had followed in his footsteps of managing an offense that compensated in its brilliance for the woefulness of its defense. Since UCLA also had excelled much more on offense than on defense this year, the stars seemed to align for a ferocious shootout with many more touchdowns than defensive stops. Only one team got that memo, as it turned out.
Hampered by penalties throughout the season, a category in which they ranked second-worst in the FBS, UCLA committed a personal foul on Baylor’s opening possession but soon forced a punt anyway. To the surprise of those expecting a high-octane shootout, UCLA could not collect a first down on its first possession as the Holiday Bowl began with consecutive punts. Handed another opportunity to break a scoreless tie, Baylor capitalized directly with a series of Glasco Martin rushes. Despite a strong kick return, UCLA could not respond on their next possession as the momentum remained with the more experienced Big 12 squad. With a long completion to Williams, Florence moved the Bears back within UCLA territory, where the Bruins committed a third penalty that illustrated the sloppiness caused by their inexperience. Rather than pounding the football into the end zone on the ground, Baylor called for an eight-yard fade pass into the corner that set them ahead by double digits. Perhaps disoriented by the delayed kickoff, UCLA had compiled just two yards in their first two possessions, so they urgently needed their offense to awaken. But a false start penalty and another sack of Hundley led to a third straight punt. As the offense sputtered, the defense stiffened in forcing a three-and-out from deep inside Baylor territory, punctuated by a sack of Florence. Still, the “0” next to UCLA on the scoreboard as the period ended raised serious cause for concern.
Baylor 14, UCLA 0
The weak punt that ensued left the Bruins well positioned inside midfield to break that scoring stalemate. While the Baylor defensive line continued to bottle up Franklin, its much-maligned secondary gave Hundley room to find his receivers. UCLA found itself once again facing difficult down-and-distance situations, however, as the offense lacked a reliable rhythm and Hundley succumbed to his third sack of the game. Despite needing 18 yards for a conversion to sustain the drive, the Bruins opted to go for it and fell well short. Under pressure on a third-down play, Florence darted for a first down in a run that brought back fleeting memories of Griffin. Again forced to deliver on a third down, he showed tremendous poise in flinging an off-balance pass down the sideline for Baylor’s third touchdown. As the game threatened to spiral out of reach before halftime, an injury to a UCLA offensive tackle exacerbated their offensive woes. Continuing the theme of the first half, the Bruins remained mired in long down-and-distance situations that doomed another drive inside midfield, while Hundley continued to suffer heavy hits from Bears linemen. The first positive sign for the Bruins came when Baylor fumbled inside its own red zone on the next possession, setting up a short scoring drive on a touchdown catch by towering tight end Joseph Fauria. A determined effort by the defense appeared to stop the Bears, but an odd ball spot by the officials awarded them a drive-extending first down. Not likely to waste such a gift, Florence soon handed off to Glasco Martin for a 26-yard touchdown charge. Unable to stop Baylor in either the running or the passing game, the Bruins received no more hope from their offense when it slogged through another three-and-out after absorbing more negative yardage. Against the 119th-ranked defense in the FBS, UCLA had managed just five first downs and one score in seven possessions.
Putting an exclamation point on a stunning first half for Baylor was a 43-yard touchdown run by Lache Seastrunk, the running back who had dubbed himself a Heisman favorite in 2013. His ability to accelerate with blinding speed through the beleaguered Bruins defense delivered an impressive bit of evidence in support of that claim, although he will need to produce such plays against more experienced opposition. Converting a fake punt with aplomb in the final minute of the half, UCLA marched inside Baylor territory and converted another fourth down on a short pass under pressure. But coach Jim Mora settled for a field goal on a third fourth down rather than attempt a more meaningful touchdown.
Baylor 35, UCLA 10
This period started in the same vein as the first half with a UCLA drive that started in promising fashion but stalled just inside Baylor territory. Falling to 1-11 on third downs, the Bruins failed to convert a fourth down on a deflected pass. After the defense sacked Florence on Baylor’s first offensive series, coach Art Briles chose the conservative play of a punt. Perhaps the only area in which UCLA surpassed the Bears tonight, special teams produced another score with a 40-yard field goal when Mora elected not to gamble on a 4th-and-11 play. Kicking one field goal at a time would not suffice to mount a comeback, however, even making the implausible assumption that the Bruins defense could hold the voracious Baylor offense in check thereafter. Aiming to take time off the clock, Baylor called run after run yet still earned a few first downs. A strong punt return set up the UCLA offense inside Baylor territory on the next possession. But Hundley could not produce any yardage at all on four attempts, resulting in the second turnover on downs of the period. Finally more interested in making something happen on offense, Baylor marched inside the UCLA but needed a series of laborious runs to record their sixth touchdown.
Baylor 42, UCLA 13
Shedding a slight ray of hope on the otherwise dismal debacle was the fumble that the Bruins defense forced on the second play of the quarter. Their alarming habit of absorbing negative plays on early downs resurfaced, and Hundley nearly fumbled himself on an embarrassing low snap. Nevertheless, he recovered impressively to deliver his cleanest throw of the night on a 24-yard touchdown strike that he placed perfectly in the hands of the receiver. Both of UCLA’s touchdowns had come off Baylor fumbles in its own territory, though, a difficult formula to sustain. Even when the defense forced a third fumble, this time in Bruins territory, the offense swiftly turned over the ball on downs. As the last several meaningless minutes ticked off, Baylor scored another rushing touchdown to set the final margin at a decisive thirty. Or so it seemed until UCLA scored a meaningless touchdown as time expired.
Final score: Baylor 49, UCLA 26
Baylor’s authoritative victory concluded an outstanding finish to the season during which they upset then-#1 Kansas State and produced much better football than their record suggested. After watching this Holiday Bowl, meanwhile, critics will wonder whether UCLA did not produce football as strong as its regular-season record suggested. The Bruins ended the year with three losses following the revenge-infused victory over UCLA that clinched the Pac-12 South, and their performance in a key game as Pac-12 runner-up (albeit not the conference’s second-best team overall) reflected poorly on a conference that perceives itself as second only to the SEC. Fortunately for the Pac-12, two more bowls against opponents from the Big 12—the SEC’s other self-identified rival—will offer opportunities to erase this memory in the national perception. The first of those, the Alamo Bowl, pits Oregon State against Texas on Saturday.