It had all the makings of a storybook Saturday for Chase Griffin.
The undersized quarterback made his first career start for UCLA and showed that he was the guttiest of Bruins, shaking off several mistakes to rally his short-handed team while putting it on the verge of an epic upset against No. 11 Oregon.
One final drive yielded three first downs. The Bruins had the ball at the Ducks’ 41-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play at Autzen Stadium, needing a field goal to tie the score or a touchdown to go ahead.
Griffin fired a pass toward Kyle Philips, one of the team’s most surehanded wide receivers, around the 20-yard line. The ball was put into the right spot. Philips reached out to make the catch. He couldn’t hold onto the ball.
Storybook ending denied. Dreams crushed.
Final score: Oregon 38, UCLA 35.
“It came down to one play one way or another,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said, “and as I told the players, when you play a good team, you can’t do that and all of us kind of own this.”
The Bruins (1-2) doomed themselves with four turnovers, matching the number from their season-opening loss to Colorado. Kelly shouldered additional blame for a gamble that backfired on the final play of the first half, when he called for a Hail Mary that turned into an Oregon touchdown when Griffin was hit as he threw the ball and had his pass intercepted.
Those mistakes proved pivotal on an afternoon that UCLA running back Demetric Felton Jr. ran for a career-high 167 yards to go with two touchdowns, Griffin looked like a capable Pac-12 quarterback and the Bruins’ defense piled up 10 tackles for loss while holding the Ducks (3-0) to 88 yards rushing and 2.6 yards per carry.
UCLA played with a swagger, giving no indication that it was significantly undermanned. The Bruins were without nine players, including quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and two other starters, because of issues related to COVID-19 involving two positive tests and contact tracing that put other players in quarantine.
“ ‘Contact tracing’ is some of the dumbest stuff I heard,” tweeted running back Kazmeir Allen, one of the players held out. “If we have 4 negative test [sic] in a row we should be able to play period.”
Kelly said he did not appreciably alter his game plan to account for the absences. The coach did move Philips and fellow wide receiver Ethan Fernea into the backfield on occasion to take option pitches from Griffin because the team was missing three running backs.
Griffin said Thompson-Robinson sent messages of encouragement after learning he wouldn’t be able to play. They apparently did the job for an understudy who said he wasn’t nervous walking onto the field as the starter after having never thrown a pass at the college level.
“Just the normal energy,” said Griffin, who completed 19 of 31 passes for 195 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. “I really recognized it as a blessing.”
The 5-foot-11 Griffin managed the game’s early going in impressive fashion, completing his first seven passes as the Bruins matched the Ducks score for score.
UCLA fought back from a crushing 23-second sequence in the first quarter in which fumbles by Griffin and Qwuantrezz Knight led to back-to-back Oregon touchdowns and a 14-0 hole.
Felton halved the deficit with a one-yard touchdown run and the disruptive Bruins defense forced a fumble when linebacker Mitchell Agude knocked the ball out of running back C.J. Verdell’s hands. Knight scooped up the ball and raced 20 yards for a touchdown that tied the score.
There were more highlights to come. Griffin fired a 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Dulcich late in the second quarter, giving the Bruins a 21-17 lead and prompting one of their biggest fans to express his delight on social media.
“YEAHHH CHASE!!!!,” Thompson-Robinson tweeted. “GREAT THROW.”
UCLA regretted its attempt to extend its advantage before halftime. Kelly asked Griffin to heave the ball toward the end zone after the Bruins had reached their own 44-yard line with one play to go, but he was hit as he released the pass.
The ball floated awkwardly into the air and Oregon’s Jordan Happle grabbed it, returning the interception 58 yards for a touchdown that gave the Ducks a 24-21 lead and prompted some remorse in the UCLA locker room.
“We’ve just got to get the head coach to stop making bad calls at the end of the first half,” Kelly said.
It appeared that Oregon might run away with an easy victory when it scored again on its opening drive of the third quarter and answered a UCLA touchdown with one of its own to take a 38-28 lead late in the third quarter.
But Felton gave the Bruins a chance for their most stirring win under Kelly when he ran for an 11-yard touchdown to make it 38-35 with 3:43 left. UCLA’s defense did its job, giving the offense the ball back at its own 19-yard line with 1:17 remaining.
Griffin made back-to-back passes that went for first downs before a roughing-the-passer penalty on Oregon gave the Bruins the ball at the Ducks’ 39-yard line. Two incompletions followed before Kelly called for a run on third down, Felton getting only three yards even though he felt he was never down and continued to run.
“I didn’t really fall all the way to the ground,” Felton said. “Maybe I had an elbow down or something, but I thought I was still up.”
That brought up fourth and 12. Griffin dropped back and made an accurate pass.
The ball was there. The catch wasn’t made.
A storybook ending would have to wait for another day.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.