(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)

PASADENA, Calif. — In a perfect world for Arizona State, Saturday night would not be the last time the Sun Devils visit the Rose Bowl this year.

But big dreams require near-flawless seasons. And execution. ASU has had neither and suffered another blemish in Pasadena on Saturday in a 44-37 loss to UCLA.

“They made the plays when they needed to tonight,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “We didn’t.”

Maybe the biggest play of the night came midway through the third quarter. UCLA (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) was nursing its first lead of the game and had just held ASU (5-5, 4-3) to a field goal, allowing the Bruins to maintain a 27-24 buffer.

UCLA was facing a 3rd-and-3 from its own 35-yard-line when ASU tried to bull-rush UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with a seven-man blitz. Rosen, who finished with 381 yards passing on the night, was quick to react and lofted a simple screen pass to Bolu Olorunfunmi.

UCLA’s junior tail back was wide open coming out of the backfield, had an army of blockers in front of him and more than enough speed to traverse an ocean of open space. He turned the dump-off toss into a 56-yard gain and finished the drive two plays later with a 2-yard touchdown.

“A backbreaker,” Graham called it.

“Just a mental error. Left the running back uncovered when we are supposed to be peeling him,” he said. “We gave up some big plays like that.”

Statistically, the Sun Devils played well enough to win in Pasadena: they had 584 total yards of offense, 294 of which came on the ground; they ran 98 plays from scrimmage, 20 more than the Bruins; they also had a 14-0 lead – and all of the momentum – early in the first quarter.

But ASU gave up too many big plays – a common theme in its growing catalogue of losses this fall.

An imperfect cause for another avoidable loss.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have won this game,” ASU defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said.

Except, the Bruins had six plays of 30-plus yards. Overcoming a half dozen explosive gains proved to be a tall task.

“We needed to make them one dimensional and we didn’t,” Graham said. “They had some big runs on us and hit some big passes.”

Some were from Rosen, like a second quarter 59-yard connection to Jordan Lasley. Others were from the Bruins running game, like a 30-yard burst from Christian Pabico that set up a game-tying score in the first half.

Even UCLA’s defense, a much-maligned unit this season, manufactured a major momentum shift with a pick-six in the first quarter. ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins had a short pass deflected by Bruins lineman Marcus Moore, sending the ball directly into the path of defensive back Nate Meadors who returned it 27-yards for a touchdown.

“Nothing our players did, it was just a play where they deflected the ball,” Graham said.

That turnover let the air out of ASU’s red-hot start to the night. The Sun Devils had scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives, shoving the ball down UCLA’s throat with a physical running attack. In the first quarter alone, ASU had 100 rushing yards on 20 carries.

But UCLA eventually stacked the box, polluting the line of the scrimmage with blue and gold jerseys to grind the Sun Devils ground game to halt. Wilkins couldn’t provide an outlet through the air, finishing the night completing just 21-of-37 passes for 290 yards, while the Sun Devils faced too many third downs, 22, to sustain drives.

Where UCLA gradually found space for big gains down the field, ASU’s impact-play offense went missing.

“We had every opportunity to remain in the lead and extend the lead,” ASU wide receiver N’Keal Harry said. “We just didn’t get it done.”

In the second half, the Sun Devils’ execution went cold in the red zone. Four times ASU crossed UCLA’s 20-yard-line down the stretch, but only once did the Sun Devils punch it in. The Bruins on the other hand came away with touchdowns in the scoring-area situations, converting on three of their four second half chances.

“We should have ran the ball every time we got in the red zone. We get behind the count and try to throw the ball,” Graham said. “We had 20 more plays than they did. That’s on par to win. The difference is you’ve got to score touchdowns. You can’t get field goals.”

Under the pressure of a close game, and under the bright lights of the Pac-12 holy ground, ASU’s offensive rhythm faded.

“We were running the ball and my whole deal coming in was tempo. We did that in the first half,” Graham said. “I don’t think we ever got the tempo at the rate I wanted [in the second half].”

Not even a special teams score from ASU – Eno Benjamin’s touchdown return off a Malik Lawal blocked punt – could get the Sun Devils over the hump. Once Olorunfunmi broke off his 56-yard swing pass, and broke open a two-score UCLA lead, ASU was out of gas and shorts on ways to salvage a win.

“It was a close game and we just made some undisciplined things,” Graham said.

Chalk it up as another botched opportunity to inch closer to this season’s goal: bowl eligibility. Big plays and mental mistakes proved to again — for the fifth time during this campaign — be a losing culprit.

Said Smallwood, “We’ve said that too often this season.”

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