Whatever was said by UCLA coaches and players at halftime…bottle it, sell it, fund the NIL collective with the proceeds. UCLA overcomes an ugly first half to win the LA Bowl over Boise State 35-22. The win answered a few questions and opened up many more.
Ethan Garbers came in at quarterback when starter Colin Schlee was injured at the end of a 44-yard run with the Bruins down 16-7. All he did was lead UCLA to four touchdown drives. In the last quarter-and-a-half. It begs the obvious question. If he was healthy enough to do all of that, how was he not healthy enough to start?
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said it was a game-time decision that was left up to Garbers. He was injured in the season finale against Cal. Kelly said he talked to Garbers after warmups and that the quarterback said he physically felt more comfortable being the backup. But once Schlee went down after the long run, any option was taken out of the mix.
A Second Half That Leads to Questions
It was as unimaginable of a second-half turnaround as the first half was unimaginably bad for UCLA. Boise State was starting a true freshman who went into the bowl game having never thrown a pass in a college game. And C.J. Tiller didn’t exactly light it up, but the offense was efficient enough.
The Broncos had three drives that led to three field goals. And in the process, they rolled up the rushing yard totals against what had been the top-ranked rushing defense in the country going into the game. Yes, UCLA was missing all-everything defensive end Laiatu Latu who had opted out of the game to begin getting ready for his NFL future. And while the Bruins have plenty of other high-end players on defense, they were exposed as lesser than with Laiatu there taking up so much of the scheme planning for the Boise State offense.
In addition, UCLA’s offensive line showed a staggering lack of discipline with offsides/false start penalties throughout the first half.
And then Garbers came in. And the UCLA world changed at least for the night.
A Bad, Bad Start for UCLA
Boise State started the scoring with a 59-yard drive that ended with a 33-yard field goal by Jonah Dalmas. UCLA managed only four plays before having to punt the ball away.
Tiller completed a halfback screen pass to George Holani to cut through the UCLA defense for a 45-yard play that put the Broncos down at the UCLA 11-yard line. The Boise State drive stalled inside the 10-yard line and the Broncos settled for a 23-yard field goal.
UCLA finally mustered some offense on its third drive, and it was on the feet, not the arm, of Schlee. He had three runs for a total of 75 yards, including a 50-yard run up the right side to the Boise State eight-yard line. Three plays later, he kept a busted play alive running around in the backfield from side to side before finally shot putting a pass to tight end Hudson Habermehl in the middle of the end zone. Even though the Bruins were outgained on offense they were up 7-6.
In the second quarter, Boise State continued to eat up yards on the ground before having yet another drive stall inside the red zone. The Broncos got another 33-yard field goal from Dalmas and re-took the lead at 9-7.
Boise State Rolls Up the Numbers
On their second drive of the second quarter, Boise State finally completed a drive, and of course, most of it was on the ground. The Broncos rushed for 35 yards on the drive and picked up another 15 yards with a pass interference call against UCLA. From there Holani bulled up the middle from one yard out for the touchdown and the 16-7 halftime lead.
The story of the half was in the numbers and the numbers did not lie. Boise State had 202 yards of total offense against the #11 defense in the country. And a UCLA defense that was giving up only 70 yards rushing per game had been rolled up for 126 yards on the ground in one half. UCLA had also committed eight penalties for 64 yards. Seven of them were on the offensive line.
As for the Bruins, they had 174 of offense, but 83 of it was from Schlee running, which was not sustainable long term, (he added 73 passing in the half).
And then came the “magical halftime.”
The UCLA Defense Finds Itself
The Bruins’ defense shut down Boise State to a three-and-out on its first possession of the third quarter. UCLA’s offense picked it up from there. T.J. Harden had two runs totaling 34 yards. And then Schlee had his 44-yard run. As he was going down it looked as though his helmet was inadvertently pulled off by the BSU defender, and his head hit the ground.
In came Garbers. On his third play, he hit Kyle Ford on a five-yard seam route in the front of the end zone for the touchdown and the BSU lead was down to 16-14.
The UCLA defense looked like it found its old self in the locker room. They held Bosie State to a net four yards of offense on six plays on the Broncos’ next drive.
And Garbers was just getting started. He connected with J. Michael Sturdivant on a deep route along the right sideline, with the receiver doing a great toe tap to get a foot in bounds. It was a 39-yard gain to the BSU five-yard line. Three plays later, Harden cruised into the end zone untouched on the left side for a one-yard touchdown run. UCLA had a 21-16 lead that it would never relinquish.
And Then There Was Garbers
The Bruins’ defense again held Boise State to a three-and-out. And then Garbers really put the game away. He scrambled to the right for 15 yards. Then it was a 41-yard pass to Sturdivant to the Boise State 14-yard line. Harden took it to the left side into the end zone for a three-play touchdown drive that went 70 yards in :57 seconds and put the Bruins up 28-16 at the end of the third quarter.
More than halfway through the fourth quarter, UCLA defensive back Alex Johnson picked off an overthrow by Tiller at the Boise State 40-yard line. It took one play for Garbers to drive the nail into the coffin. Sturdivant made an over-the-shoulder catch on a fade route in the end zone for the touchdown and the 35-16 lead. It gave UCLA 28 unanswered points.
Boise State added a touchdown on a Holani 66-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion failed. It tweaked the stats, but not the outcome.
A UCLA defense that was getting eaten away in the first half yielded only 120 yards of Boise State offense in the second half. For his part, Garbers went nine of 12 in relief for 152 yards and two touchdowns. He was named the Offensive MVP for the game. He also announced he will be returning to UCLA for the 2024 season. It helped that Kelly, after the game, pronounced Garbers as the incumbent quarterback going forward, when asked if he would be shopping in the portal this off-season.
The Bowl win was the first for Kelly in his six years at UCLA. The Bruins finish the season 8-5. Boise State finishes 8-6.