Ethan Garbers rescues UCLA in LA Bowl win over Boise State

Estimated read time 4 min read

He started the year as UCLA’s top quarterback. Ethan Garbers finished it the same way.

Despite injuries and inconsistent play on offense throughout the season, the redshirt junior led the Bruins to their first bowl win since 2015 with a triumphant second half Saturday, entering in relief of injured Collin Schlee to help UCLA to a 35-22 victory over Boise State in the LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium.

After the game, Garbers announced he will return to UCLA next season.

Garbers, who suffered an arm injury during UCLA’s regular-season finale against California, finished with 152 yards and two touchdowns on nine-for-12 passing with 38 rushing yards. He entered the game on UCLA’s first drive of the third quarter after Schlee appeared to hit his head on the turf following a 44-yard rush.

Schlee, a transfer from Kent State who had completed fewer than half of his passes this season, flashed his dual-threat ability with 127 rushing yards in seven carries, but UCLA’s offense crawled when he was at the helm.

The Bruins (8-5) had more penalties (eight) in the first half than points, taking a 16-7 deficit into the locker room.

Starting when Garbers entered the game facing first and goal from the Boise State nine-yard line, the Bruins scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives. Garbers completed his first eight passes, including 39- and 41-yard strikes to J. Michael Sturdivant.

UCLA players celebrate after beating Boise State in the LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sturdivant’s longest catch of the game set up a 14-yard touchdown run from T.J. Harden on the next play, capping a lightning-strike 57-second scoring drive from the Bruins that left Boise State stunned after giving up two touchdowns in less than three minutes.

As Harden ran into the end zone, Garbers looked toward the crowd of 32,780 and stretched his arms wide. At least half of the record-setting crowd for the three-year-old LA Bowl was thoroughly entertained by the hometown kid.

The Newport Beach native deserved to soak in the moment after a topsy-turvy season. From the opener against Coastal Carolina to Saturday’s LA Bowl, Garbers had won a heated preseason quarterback competition, was benched for freshman Dante Moore and was elevated again to the starting spot only to get injured.

But Garbers never wavered.

1

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers passes during the second half.

2

Boise State running back George Holani breaks away from UCLA's JonJon Vaughns and Carl Jones Jr. in the first half.

3

UCLA coach Chip Kelly reacts to play during the first half.

1. UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers passes during the second half. 2. Boise State running back George Holani breaks away from UCLA’s JonJon Vaughns and Carl Jones Jr. in the first half. 3. UCLA coach Chip Kelly reacts to play during the first half. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“He has it, the ‘it’ factor,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said last week. “He’s been through a lot. … He’s got a great command of what we do. I think everybody feels kind of calm when Garbs is in there. There’s a rhythm to our offense, and you look at when we’ve been playing really well on the offensive side of the ball, Garbs has been a guy leading us to do that.”

Despite Garbers’ cool demeanor, he rarely has been thought of as the long-term solution for Kelly in the post-Dorian Thompson-Robinson era. UCLA quickly grabbed Schlee out of the transfer portal after last season. And when the coaching staff recruited Moore, a five-star prospect from Detroit, many anointed him as the future.

With the way the Bruins struggled in the passing game for much of the season, many fans were ready to dive into the portal again for a quarterback, especially after Moore announced his intention to transfer.

Instead, Garbers staked his claim Saturday as the signal-caller who could lead the Bruins into the Big Ten, and secured the first postseason win by Kelly since he came to UCLA.

Sturdivant led the Bruins with 142 receiving yards and one touchdown in four catches.

UCLA's Jay Toia, far left, and Grayson Murphy celebrate a defensive stop in the second half against Boise State.

UCLA’s Jay Toia, far left, and Grayson Murphy celebrate a defensive stop in the second half against Boise State.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Mountain West-champion Broncos, led by freshman quarterback CJ Tiller, who was playing in his first significant game time after transfers and injuries ravaged the position, rushed for 215 yards, the most given up by UCLA this season.

The Bruins were without their top defensive lineman, Laiatu Latu, who opted out while finishing school and preparing for the NFL draft.

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