Ethan Garbers looks so young, so innocent, as if he should be sidling up to the Rose Bowl concession stand for cotton candy instead of throwing passes on the field.
“He looks like he’s about 13 years old,” said Dan O’Shea, his high school coach, “with freckly little cheeks.”
That tenderness betrays the fearlessness with which Garbers plays. O’Shea knew UCLA could be assured of one thing when the redshirt freshman quarterback entered the game against Oregon with just over a minute left Saturday.
Garbers would not be nervous.
“He will not blink at anything,” O’Shea, who coached Garbers at Corona del Mar High, said Sunday during a telephone interview. “You can walk him into [a game] at Alabama and the kid will handle it better than anyone I’ve met at the quarterback position.”
As a high school senior, Garbers completed every big pass, made every big play the Sea Kings needed while finishing 16-0 and winning a state championship. In one playoff game, he accounted for all eight touchdowns by throwing for five and running for three, his first rushing touchdown coming when he ran over the middle linebacker to set the tone.
So there was no doubt in O’Shea’s mind that Saturday's moment would not swallow Garbers whole when the Washington transfer walked out onto the Rose Bowl field with his new team needing a field goal to tie the score or a touchdown to beat the No. 10 Ducks. His college experience to that point consisted of two cameo appearances with the Bruins in which he had thrown two passes, completing both.
“We were hoping for the Miracle on Ice No. 2,” O’Shea said, alluding to the U.S. hockey team’s upset of the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
UCLA starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had just departed the game after absorbing the last of many punishing hits, finally succumbing to injury. The Bruins had the ball at their 39-yard line while facing second and 20. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Garbers did not ease his way into the drama, firing a pass to Kam Brown for 12 yards on his first play.
It could have been a short stay. After a pass intended for tight end Greg Dulcich was broken up, Garbers and his team faced fourth and eight.
Garbers dropped back, looked to his right and found receiver Kyle Philips for a 10-yard completion to the Oregon 39. The crowd roared. The dream endured.
An incompletion followed, setting up second and 10. Garbers took the snap, dropping back once more. His saw running back Zach Charbonnet, locking in on his target. He threw the ball.
Oregon’s DJ James broke on the pass and intercepted it, running 19 yards downfield with a finger thrust in the air. Game over. Dream dashed.
“Ethan’s eyes looked there a little bit too early, I would guess, to allow the corner to drive it,” O’Shea said, “and I think the announcer of the game said the exact same thing.”
Garbers did not speak with reporters after completing two of his five passes for 22 yards during the Bruins' 34-31 loss. UCLA coach Chip Kelly said he did not have to alter his play calls with Garbers in the game.
“He made a really huge play on the fourth-down conversion, you know, proud of that,” Kelly said, “and I didn’t get a good look at the last play so I don’t feel I can make a comment on that.”
While Kelly said he did not know the extent of Thompson-Robinson’s injury, the quarterback tweeted after the game that he was OK. If he is unable to play for the Bruins (5-3 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) on Saturday at Utah (4-3, 3-1), Garbers would presumably start in his place.
“If we have to play Ethan,” Kelly said, “then we'll be excited about what Ethan can do cause I think he's a really good football player.”
The younger brother of California redshirt senior quarterback Chase Garbers, Ethan initially picked Washington over UCLA out of high school, in large part because of the relationships he had developed with the Huskies coaching staff. But one of those connections ended unexpectedly when Washington fired offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan the day after the 2019 signing period ended.
“That really shook him pretty hard,” O’Shea said. “He could have been happy and stayed up there, I’m sure, but it just was a direction that he wasn’t expecting after the first year and he knew he could come back home where he was very, very thrilled with Chip and the staff and comfortable and when the opportunity presented itself.”
There will be more chances to come, more passes to throw, for the likely successor to Thompson-Robinson if he departs for the NFL draft as expected after this season.
O’Shea sent his protégé an encouraging text after his first meaningful college moment.
“Dang, you looked confident as heck out there and played terrific,” O’Shea wrote. “A great play by their guy. Keep grinding. Go Bruins.”
“Thanks, coach,” Garbers responded, “I will.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.