Saturday night’s 31-14 win over Colorado encapsulated UCLA’s season succinctly into four quarters at the Rose Bowl. There was enough good, with visions for a high ceiling on both offense and defense. UCLA took advantage, as good teams do, of playing one of the statistically worst defenses in the country. And there was some of the Bruins getting in their own way with mistakes and lack of execution. But there is a newly found maturity on the team that enabled them to hang on to more of the upside in front of 47,118 at the Rose Bowl. At 4-5 overall and 4-2 in conference play, stunningly, as UCLA finds its maturity, they are in a two-way tie for second place in the Pac 12 South with USC.
It was the new and improved Bruins that took control of the game in the first quarter. With the help of a catch interference call on a punt, UCLA started their first series with favorable field position. From there they covered 57 yards in just six plays. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson hit tight end Devin Asiasi right between the hash marks just before the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 UCLA lead.
The Bruins would get another drive of 74 yards, and use clock as they did last week, with the 12 plays using just over five minutes. But they would bog down at the Colorado nine-yard line and settle for a 28-yard field goal from J.J. Molson to grow the lead to 10-0.
They weren’t done. On the next series, Colorado quarterback Steven Montez was picked off by UCLA linebacker Krys Barnes at the Buffaloes 34-yard line. A personal foul against the Bruins, after the interception, would push UCLA a little further back. But this was the good version of the Bruins, so they handled it well. It took just one play to score again. Thompson-Robinson hit Ethan Fernea, who lunged across the goal line for a 45-yard touchdown play. UCLA ended the first quarter with a 17-0 lead.
It was the former walk-on’s first career touchdown in his four years at UCLA. Thompson-Robinson described the play. “I don’t even think that he was expecting me to throw him the ball. So, we got into a look. All week we had gotten into a look where I was throwing the deep ball. They changed the look up on us, and I just read it out. I gave him a chance and he went and got the ball. That was a great route by him and a great catch.”
Then the other Bruins showed up…the ones that struggled through the first five weeks of the season. The offense sputtered and managed only 42 total yards for the entire quarter. Meanwhile the defense was giving up 153 yards and Colorado’s first touchdown. The Buffaloes had a 12 play, 83-yard drive that ended with Montez rushing in from the two yard line, although he scrambled about 10 yards to get the touchdown.
The Bruins halftime lead was 17-7. It would have been less, but Colorado kicker James Stefanou missed a 47-yard field goal at the end of the end of the second quarter.
Just five plays into the third quarter, Thompson-Robinson was back pedaling at his own 37-yard line and threw to Demtric Felton who was not looking. The pass was picked off by Colorado’s Carson Wells at the UCLA 43. UCLA escaped damage when Stefanou missed another field goal. This time, the 27-yarder hit the right upright.
Enough was enough. Thompson-Robinson engineered a an 11-play drive, including seven rushing plays, that covered 80-yards in just over five minutes. Joshua Kelly lumbered the final five yards, dragging two defenders with him right up the middle for a touchdown and a 24-7 lead that would never be threatened.
Colorado added a Montez to Tony Brown 27-yard touchdown pass with five minutes left to get the margin down to 24-14. But after pecking away for three and four yards per carry, Kelley busted through a hole on the left side of the line and ran 35 yards for a touchdown and the final 31-14 score.
Kelley said there was the fight for every yard early. But he said running backs coach Deshaun Foster has told him, “Sometimes it is like hitting a wall, and you try to break through the wall. Here is two, three, four, five, and the boom, you get 40.” Kelly also said he could sense the UCLA offensive line was wearing down the Colorado defensive front. “As the game goes on, you can tell when their guys get tired and get a little worn down. When I see a hole, I have to hit it.” He finished the day 126 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. He passed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for his UCLA career.
Perhaps no one personified the UCLA upward trajectory more than Thompson-Robinson. He finished the game 21 of 28 for 226 yards, two touchdowns. The sophomore also had no fewer than four drops from receivers. He had the one interception on the miscommunication with Felton. Thompson-Robinson added 38 yards rushing, a lot of it keeping plays alive with his feet. The mistake did not really cost UCLA much and the upside showed something that was not readily visible in the first few weeks. Pretty much like the team as a whole.
Head coach Chip Kelly said there is a maturity going on throughout the team that is epitomized in Thompson-Robinson. “You know, the neat thing about Dorian is that you just keep seeing him grow each week. He keeps putting a better performance on top of a better performance. And that is what you want. As a team, we talk about being obsessed with improvement and not being satisfied with everything. We’re pleased with what happened tonight, but we’re not satisfied. We need to continue to improve as a group. And I think, you know, Dorian is a prime example of that.”
For the spotlight that gets put on the offense and its growth, the defense had a huge night. They contained the veteran quarterback, Montez and shut down one of the best receivers in the country in Laviska Shenault. He had only three catches for 16 yards. Montez was 21 of 38 for 195, one touchdown and one interception. Kelly gave praise to his defense. “We were very concerned with the passing attack of this team. Montez has been a really good quarterback in this league. They arguably have the best receiver in this league in Shenault. I thought overall that our defense did a good job, and it’s a group effort. I’m really happy with how they played tonight.”
Much as the players say the schemes have been simplified over time, Thompson-Robinson said seeing what is possible has also become more evident. “When Coach Kelly talks about the importance of practice, it’s kind of hard to see that. But when you see it pay off, guys really have bought into it. This week definitely has been the best week of practice that we’ve had so far. We showed it, out on the field.”
Colorado dropped to 1-5 in conference play and 3-6 overall.
The Bruins have a week off before facing Pac 12 South leading Utah in Salt Lake City on November 16th. The Utes also are headed into a bye week after dominating Washington in the second half in a 33-28 win in Seattle on Saturday.