It was every kid kicker’s dream and millionaire coach’s queasy scenario, a fateful flash of seconds defining their team’s narrative for at least the next week.
As the last blocker crouched into place for the game’s final play Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl, UCLA kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira lined up behind his holder. He measured off two wide steps to his left. He waited for the snap with his team trailing South Alabama by two points and just three seconds left.
A back-and-forth game filled with bizarre plays and Bruins blunders needed resolution. Would Barr-Mira, a former walk-on who had been perfect on the day after a shaky start to the season, fully redeem himself? Or would he falter under the pressure of his first game-deciding kick at any level of football, reviving doubts about UCLA under coach Chip Kelly?
On the Bruins’ sideline, coaches and players alike felt as if they could predict the future.
“Honestly, I thought he had it,” said Kelly, who awarded Barr-Mira a scholarship near the end of training camp.
“Shoot, I was at ease,” said quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had frantically guided his team from its 33-yard line to the South Alabama six over the final 2 minutes 52 seconds.
“His name has been ‘Money Nick’ since he started his first game here,” said linebacker Carl Jones Jr., who had foiled South Alabama’s fake field goal on the Jaguars’ final drive.
With the crowd of 29,344 standing and straining their necks to follow the trajectory of the ball, Barr-Mira earned that nickname anew, sending his 24-yard kick sailing inside the right upright to provide UCLA with a 32-31 victory.
Barr-Mira tapped facemasks with holder Jack Landherr IV in celebration before sprinting toward the other end of the field, pausing only for hand slaps and quickie hugs along the way.
“As a kid, as a kicker, you definitely think about those moments, you want those moments — any kicker would really dream of having those moments,” Barr-Mira said. “But in the moment, all I could focus on was making the kick. Treated it like any other kick.”
It ended like all his other kicks on the day, Barr-Mira going four for four on field goals. It might have been the only department in which the Bruins (3-0) were perfect in completing their nonconference schedule unbeaten for the first time in Kelly’s five seasons.
A botched handoff led to a fumble by Zach Charbonnet into the end zone, one play after an apparent touchdown catch was marked down on the other side of the goal line. A bobbled pitch resulted in another Bruins turnover. The defense seemed out of position on nearly every other play while giving up 399 yards to the Jaguars (2-1), including nearly five yards per carry.
The miscues left restless a crowd that represented UCLA’s second smallest since the team moved to the Rose Bowl before the 1982 season — topping only the 27,143 the Bruins drew for their season opener against Bowling Green. The sagging attendance drew a rebuke from former Bruins quarterback Troy Aikman, who retweeted a picture of the crowd and called it “an embarrassment” while noting his top-ranked team in 1988 couldn’t fill the stadium either.
“Anyone else at UCLA think it’s time for an on-campus 30,000-seat stadium,” Aikman wrote. “Of course, if we can’t play better than we did today, it would be half-empty too.”
Unfortunately for Aikman, UCLA’s Rose Bowl lease runs through June 2044. But like everything else hampering the Bruins, that was a worry for another day after UCLA showed its resolve in winning for the sixth consecutive time dating to last season.
“Three things happen in a football game — momentum swings, random events and adversity,” Kelly said, “and the key is if you’re a competitor, you respond.”
Seemingly all three things happened on the play that left the Bruins staring at defeat late in the third quarter. UCLA running back Keegan Jones bobbled a pitch from Thompson-Robinson deep in Bruins territory, leading to a strange sequence in which nearly every player on the field seemingly touched the loose ball before South Alabama recovered it at UCLA’s six-yard line.
When Jaguars quarterback Carter Bradley connected with wide receiver Caullin Lacy for a four-yard touchdown two plays later, UCLA trailed 31-23 and appeared to be on the verge of another loss to a Group of Five opponent after falling to Cincinnati (twice), Fresno State (twice) and San Diego State in previous seasons under Kelly.
Determined to show he’s among a different breed of Bruins, slot receiver Logan Loya hauled in an eight-yard scoring pass on fourth and four. But UCLA couldn’t pull even after the Jaguars dragged down Thompson-Robinson short of the goal line on the two-point conversion.
It looked as if South Alabama probably would add to its lead with slightly less than three minutes to play when it lined up for a field goal at the UCLA 22. But when holder Tanner McGee, who is also the Jaguars’ backup quarterback, shifted into the shotgun formation, the Bruins quickly tried to gird themselves for a potential knockout punch.
“I’m down in the four-point [stance] getting ready to just run through a 300-pounder,” Jones said. “And the next thing you know, we just heard, ‘Fake, fake, fake!’ ”
Jones shifted outside to give himself a better rushing lane toward McGee, whom he wrapped up for an 11-yard loss.
That left the Bruins with little time to go 67 yards for a touchdown or as far as they could move into field-goal range. Thompson-Robinson made the most of it, quickly guiding his team into South Alabama territory when he connected with wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala for a 29-yard reception.
Six consecutive running plays eventually brought Barr-Mira onto the field. He took a couple of quick, purposeful steps before kicking the ball, the little kid having grown up to live the dream.