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Little has come easy for UCLA this season, and this was no different.
Seemingly on the way to a runaway victory against a Washington team struggling to move the ball, the Bruins’ defense faltered, their offense sputtered and suddenly the score was tied.
Needing one big play to reverse its fortunes midway through the fourth quarter Saturday night, UCLA turned to Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The senior quarterback provided two.
Facing a fourth and one, with Huskies players waving white towels on the sideline to intensify the din of the Husky Stadium crowd, Thompson-Robinson cut outside for a two-yard run.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Bruins safety Quentin Lake said after making one of his team’s two interceptions during a game in which it didn’t turn the ball over.
The Bruins could finally exhale after freshman cornerback Devin Kirkwood made the other interception — the first of his career — on a dazzling play in which he bobbled the ball before wresting it away from Washington receiver Rome Odzune at the UCLA four-yard line with 4 minutes 50 seconds left.
The defensive stop was welcome for a team that had given up a two-touchdown lead and appeared on the verge of a crushing defeat. Instead, UCLA (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) won a second consecutive game and improved to 3-0 in conference road games while reaching the five-win threshold for the first time under coach Chip Kelly.
“Playing a game is kind of like being on a roller-coaster,” Kelly said, “you know, there’s ups and there’s turns and the only rule of a roller-coaster is you can’t get off in the middle, so our guys did a great job, they were really resilient.”
The Bruins’ first victory here since 2014 set up a showdown against No. 9 Oregon next weekend at the Rose Bowl.
It took a bounce-back performance from Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 183 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 87 yards and another score, and Zach Charbonnet’s 131 rushing yards, to prevent a meltdown on the field where Washington (2-4, 1-2) lost to Montana earlier this season.
Thompson-Robinson clinched the victory when he ran outside for eight yards on third and five, allowing the Bruins to run out the clock. He completed passes to eight different receivers on a night that Kyle Philips, the team’s leading receiver, was unavailable for unspecified reasons.
“He did what our game plan was going in,” Kelly said, “he executed it to a T, he was really good protecting the football — I don’t think there was one up there that was in harm’s way, you know, and he is such a weapon in the run game and we had some critical runs from him to keep drives extended.”
Washington held all the momentum midway through the third quarter after defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles popped Dulcich just as a pass arrived, forcing an incompletion on third down.
The Huskies got the ball back and finally got their inert running game going. Running back Kamari Pleasant’s 32-yard run was Washington’s first for more than eight yards. On fourth and goal from the one, quarterback Dylan Morris sneaked into the end zone for a touchdown that tied the score at 17.
It would have been easy for UCLA to fold given its late-game struggles earlier this season against Fresno State and Arizona State. But this was something different.
As part of a new approach, players hoisted a single finger into the air at the start of the fourth to signal one more quarter, another beginning.
“We just had to step it up, that’s it,” Lake said. “In games past, we weren’t successful finishing, but I think the motto this week really helped us finish.”
On his final touchdown pass, Thompson-Robinson withstood the Huskies’ all-out blitz thanks to good blocking that allowed him to get the ball off before the pressure.
“Everybody did their job,” said Thompson-Robinson, who completed 21 of 26 passes.
Kelly acknowledged thinking Washington might have tied the score once more when Morris fired a pass toward a streaking Odzune.
“It was a really good play call by them and when he threw it, I thought we may be beat here,” Kelly said, “but [Kirkwood] closed the gap and he’s just got such long arms, he made a heck of a play on the ball.”
A smile never left Lake’s face when he spoke with reporters after his team persevered for one of its most gutsy wins.
“It was just fun,” Lake said. “You have a loud stadium, everything’s hectic, you’re on the road, coming off a victory in the past [against Arizona], it’s just a lot of emotion, a lot of things to look forward to. Obviously, a lot of things to correct too.
“But these are the ones you kind of remember over the course of your career.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.