PASADENA -- It took some harsh words from coaches and some dirty looks form his teammates, but Nelson Rosario finally got fired up.
The knock on Rosario has always been he doesn't play with enough fire and energy and he had another one of those moments Saturday night, but he also had the play of the game during UCLA's 28-25 victory over Washington State.
Rosario's spectacular one-handed, 58-yard grab with just under five minutes to play set up UCLA's winning touchdown, drawing helmet slaps and high fives from up and down the sidelines, but a second-quarter play involving Rosario created just as much buzz along the Bruins' bench.
Near the end of the second quarter, UCLA had the ball at the Washington State 15 and were poised to take a lead. Rosario ran a fade route to the right corner and Kevin Prince lofted a pass that way. The pass came up a little short and Cougars' defensive back Damante Horton made an easy interception as Rosario failed to either fight for the ball or try to knock it away from Horton.
He made amends, however, when he made that clutch catch near the end of the game and then went up strong over Horton for a catch on the the ensuing two-point conversion to make it a 28-25 UCLA lead.
"The interception is what motivated me," said Rosario, who finished with three catches for 120 yards. "I had to make up for that. I had to come through and make a play."
It took a little fire lighting to make it happen.
On the way into the locker room at halftime, Rosario got an earful from volunteer assistant coach Marques Tuiasosopo, a former quarterback, about his lack of effort on the interception and the two had to be restrained after a heated exchange. Inside the locker room, Rosario heard more about it from offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and coach Rick Neuheisel.
"I thought we could have made a better play on that and he knows I think that," Johnson said. "That’s a situation there where we have to make that play or no one makes it. You’d rather have a pass interference call on that situation than allow him to pick that ball."
Rosario said he lost track of the ball.
"When the ball went up, I kind of lost it in the lights out there," he said. "I couldn’t see the ball and then when it dropped it was a little too short. I thought it was going to come further than it did and I couldn’t get it out of his hands. He made a play."
After spending halftime in the doghouse, Rosario came out for the second half determined to redeem himself. He caught a 21-yard pass during the first drive of the second half to set up a touchdown that gave the Bruins the 14-9 lead they could have at going into the locker room.
And then, with the game hanging in the balance late, he sprinted past Horton deep into Washington State territory, stretched out his right hand and corralled the pass that set up the game winner. It was the latest in a line of highlight-reel catches by Rosario, who said he's not really out to make SportsCenter every time he plays.
"I swear, I don’t try to do one-handed, it just happens sometimes," Rosario said. "Yeah, I have two hands.
During the play, I don’t think about it at all, I just try to catch the ball. The first thing that popped into my head is just to reach out for the ball and I caught it."
The play clearly changed the game. UCLA trailed, 25-20 at the time and took possession at its 29-yard line with 5:45 to play. After a three-yard run, Prince spotted the 6-foot-5 Rosario matched up one-on-one with the 5-10 Horton and lofted it deep his way. It was the same play that went for 41 yards in the first half.
"Nelson took it upon himself to make the play," Neuheisel said. "Nelson felt bad on that interception at the end of the first half that he didn’t knock the ball down and make sure they didn’t end up with the interception costing us points. So it was a terrific play and a huge turning point."
Rosario said he understood why the coaches were so upset with his effort on that interception and he and Tuiasosopo had made peace.
"Just a disagreement," he said. "Nothing serious. We just had some words and we made up, we’re fine."
Now it remains to be seen if Rosario can continue to play with that same fire. He leads the team with 26 catches for 480 yards -- more than double any other UCLA receiver in either category -- but earlier this week Johnson acknowledged the team might not be getting all it can out of Rosario.
He said the interception play Saturday was an example of that, but that his second-half turnaround was a good sign.
"He was big late and he was big when we needed him most," said Johnson, who is also the receivers coach. "He made plays in that last drive when we had to get that touchdown. He played the way he’s capable of playing and that’s what we need Nelson to be."