You could see glimpses. Several of them in fact. And they might have been enough to beat Colorado or Fresno State or Cincinnati. But not enough to beat a top ranked team like Washington. UCLA pounded out a season-high 422 yards of offense and hung with the Huskies until the last minute of the game but came up short, 31-24 before 51,123 at the Rose Bowl Saturday.
It was by far the most complete of the season for UCLA. These types of offensive performances would have won a game or two prior to this week. Conversely, maybe it took five weeks of maturation for the exceedingly young offense to find its footing.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was 27 of 38 passing for 272 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He kept drives alive with his legs, scrambling for first downs, as well as hitting receivers on the run. The real upgrade for Thompson-Robinson though was that he saw the field and check-downs on plays better than in any previous game this season. The Bruins also have a bona fide running game. Joshua Kelley had 125 yards on 20 carries with one touchdown. It was his second consecutive 100+ yard rushing game, making him the first Bruin running back to do so since Paul Perkins in 2015. This was against a defense that game into the game giving up an average of only 11 points per game.
The UCLA defense had moments. The problem is when you are playing Washington quarterback Jake Browning, moments are not enough. Throughout the first half, the UCLA defense was not getting near Browning in the pocket. They were effectively stuffing the run game up the middle, but there was no pressure at all on Browning. He was picking on UCLA defensive back Nate Meadors by repeatedly going to receiver Aaron Fuller. Near the end of the first quarter, the two connected over the top of Meadors and then Fuller sidestepped the defensive back to trot into the end zone for a 7-0 Huskies lead.
In the second quarter, it was again Browning to Fuller, and over Meadors, for 46 yards that set up a 26-yard field goal and a 10-0 Washington lead.
At this point the Bruins showed their first flash of an offense in the game. Thompson-Robinson engineered a 75-yard touchdown drive that took only 1:58. It was a mix of hitting Kelley out of the backfield in space, connecting on the run to Caleb Wilson and it ended with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Theo Howard. UCLA was now down 10-7 and the imagination was opening, of what a UCLA offense could be.
But there was that Browning guy again. Seventy-four and 77-yard Washington touchdown drives sandwiched a UCLA three-and-out series. They also burned more than eight minutes off the clock and Washington had a 24-7 halftime lead.
UCLA linebacker Krys Barnes after the game on Browning, “He’s real deceiving. You’ll look downfield and then he’ll just take off.”
The quarterback stats at halftime were eerie. Browning and Thompson-Robinson were each 11 of 17 with one touchdown and one interception. The difference was Browning had thrown for 75 more yards. His team was moving the ball up and down the field more.
Desperately needing production to start the second half, Thompson-Robinson engineered a drive deep into Huskies territory that was eventually killed by an offensive line penalty. UCLA settled for a 49-yard Molson field goal to make it 24-10. Again though, instead of taking sacks as was the case in previous weeks, Thompson-Robinson was getting out the pocket better, seeing second and even third options and keeping the drive alive.
UCLA had run 25 plays in the entire first half. They had 27 in the third quarter alone.
What there was of a UCLA crowd was in near delirium at the start of the fourth quarter when the Bruins completed a 90-yard, six-minute-long drive. Thompson-Robinson hit Wilson at the nine-yard line. Wilson made a hard, spin at the five to break and tackle and lunge into the end zone. Just like that UCLA was within a touchdown at 24-17. Wilson and his teammates were dancing the end zone and the sidelines were alive. “It was nice to have a complete drive as a team and see every little component working together,” Wilson said after the game.
But there was that Browning guy again. UCLA had Washington at third and eight inside its own 20 when Browning scrambled and eventually found Ty Jones for a 34-yard reception. Later in the same drive, it was third and six at the UCLA 40 and Browning got to the edge and scampered for 14 yards. The drive would end with Myles Gaskin taking the direct snap and running it from two yards out. Gaskin finished with 116 on 27 carries and the Huskies had an insurmountable 31-17 loss.
UCLA mounted one more drive that ended with a Kelly 2-yard touchdown run but the clock ran out on Cinderella.
After the game, UCLA players said they could feel the difference from week one to now. “I know we are right there. Being able to sustain long drives and being able to put together piece after piece is something we are trying to do,” Thompson-Robinson said. Seven Bruins had receptions including three different running backs. Kelley said he has worked hard in practice to get back to the basics. “The offensive line and tight ends have been great and consistent throughout the year, so it’s just me knowing that I just have to execute. That’s what it is. I have been practicing better. I really went back to the basics.”
For whatever positives a closer-than-expected win may have brought to the fan base, head Coach Chip Kelly wasn’t feeling it.
“We’re very analytical in our after-action reports in terms of what we are looking for. It’s just like every week, there’s certain things you did better and we need to build upon those and other things we need to clean up. You’ve got to win. We’re not into moral victories. We don’t go in and high five each other and say ‘that was close.’ There is a winner and loser. If you win, you are excited for about six hours and if you lose you are not excited at all. I’m not a guy that gets solace in that we were close. That’s not us. “
With signs of life on offense definitively there, and Thompson-Robinson showing flashes of the ability the faithful have been hoping for, UCLA is still 0-5 for the first time since 1943, (and 0-2 in conference). The Bruins are one of four FBS teams in the country without a win, (Nebraska, UTEP and San Jose State kept pace, all losing Saturday night). UCLA travels to Cal next weekend. The Bears are 3-2 after getting beat at Arizona Saturday and have produced one “significant” win this season, over BYU.