The legend of Dorian Thompson-Robinson has never been an easy thing to figure out. There are so many games with mixed performances and inconsistent stat lines. Saturday was every bit of that for the second week in a row. But Thompson-Robinson created his narrative. In the game clinching drive, he came back in, after leaving the game with an apparent shoulder injury, and threw the game winning touchdown pass. The result was a huge notch in his belt and 35-24 UCLA win over Stanford in Palo Alto.
The win moved the Bruins to 3-1 over all and 1-0 in conference. And while head coach Chip Kelly does not like to discuss correlative ties from one game to another, the win erased the debacle from last year at the Rose Bowl where UCLA lost in double overtime.
We can’t say exactly how Thompson-Robinson did. The stat link at Stanford Stadium did not work through most of the game. Hey, it’s been a long time since Stanford had a home game. We have all had stuff to shake off over the last year. But very unofficially, he was 18 of 28 for 252 yards and two touchdown passes. And this is the Thompson-Robinson that has been so hard to figure out. Look at his final stat line and he undeniably had a great game. But midway through the second quarter he was four of 11 for 51 yards.
Then the offense changed. Instead of asking for him to go downfield so much and put everything on his reads, the offense became more of a quick reaction scheme. That meant throwing to Zach Charbonnet on simple swing passes out of the backfield. Stanford had stacked the box, as Fresno State did the week before. Instead of settling for trying to drive the ball, Kelly found a different way to get the ball to Charbonnet. Kelly said after the game, “They tried to man up our outside guys. So we were trying to get the match-up of the running backs on the linebackers. I thought both him and Brittain [Brown] gave us something in the passing game.”
In addition to his approximately 129 yards rushing on 27 carries, Charbonnet also had 57 receiving yards. Brown contributed another estimated 55 yards rushing to that.
Opening up the offense also freed up tight end Greg Dulcich underneath. He had three catches for 45 yards, increasing his receiving total for the season by 75%.
In that one drive, Thompson-Robinson increased his in-game completion percentage from 32% to 56%.
When he scrambled to the left from one yard it gave UCLA a 21-7 halftime lead and seeming control of the game. And he added 61 yards to his passing stats in the one drive.
The UCLA defense had shut down Stanford’s running game. Stanford’s first five drives of the game were three-and-out. “I think we have some tough kids on that side of the ball,” Kelly said. “They do a really good job of not staying blocked.”
That’s not to say Stanford rolled over. They never have for UCLA. Quarterback Tanner McKee went 18 of 31 on the night for 295 yards and three touchdowns. After Nicholas Barr-Mira missed a 43-yard field goal attempt on UCLA’s first drive of the third quarter, McKee struck quickly and decisively. He threw found Elijah Higgins who had gotten behind Jay Shaw and Mo Osling III. McKee’s pass was good for 66 yards and the touchdown, completing a one-play drive which narrowed the UCLA lead to 21-14.
Early in the fourth quarter on third and 13, McKee went to Bryce Farrell across the middle. Farrell outran defensive back Martell Irby to the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown. The score was now tied at 21 and visions of UCLA not being able to close last year were rising from the ashes.
But on the very next play from scrimmage, Thompson-Robinson delivered his own one-play drive. He got Philps over the middle between two defenders. The result was a 75-yard touchdown pass, and the Bruins had the lead right back 28-21.
Joshua Karty gave Stanford a 48-yard field goal to get it down 28-24.
And then a chapter in the saga of Thompson-Robinson was written that will be remembered for some time. He completed a pass to Dulcich for 18 yards to the Stanford 21. On the next play he scrambled to his right for four yards before being tackled hard. He lay on the ground for a moment before getting up, grabbing his should and walking down the sidelines. He was clearly in pain and frustrated. Back-up Ethan Garbers came in to run one play. Kelly then called a timeout seemingly to settle his team down. When the team went back on the field, it was Thompson-Robinson back at quarterback, bad shoulder and all.
He threw a five-yard pass to the front of the end zone that Philips went down to the ground to catch for the touchdown. And the 35-24 win. The replay showed Thompson-Robinson clearly did not have his usual throwing motion or follow-through on the pass. But he did what winning quarterbacks do. He got it there.
Philips said after the game he was gentle in the celebration with Thompson-Robinson, not knowing how bad his shoulder was. Philips said he believed his quarterback actually injured it earlier in the game, and the tackle on the sidelines simply made it worse.
Kelly was asked about his quarterback and what he did Saturday night. “One thing I don’t think that gets mentioned enough about Dorian is how tough he is,” Kelly said. “He’s a competitor. He loves to play.”
Sixth year defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight said the team knew when Stanford tied it, this year had to end differently than last year. “This week during practice that has been the main thing. Coach Kelly has been harping on, ‘Finish, we have to finish, we have to finish. We finish. Bruins finish.’” Knight said he thought it took guts for the team to keeping fighting through turns of the game. He also gave credit to his quarterback for his finish. “Oh man, that was great. Dorian literally put the team on his back.” He said with the Stanford game last year and the Fresno State game last week, the team had, “Two examples of what not to do.
UCLA is uncharted territory in recent years. A winning record. A 1-0 conference record. There is a lot of learning from past examples in the weeks ahead.