Dorian Thompson-Robinson faked the handoff, cradled the ball in his left arm and took off running.
Nobody stood between the UCLA quarterback and the end zone as he perfectly executed the read-option play, sprinting 65 yards for a touchdown. Less than a minute into the third quarter Saturday evening, the Bruins had exponentially increased their rushing total after managing only nine yards in the first half.
It was an instance of UCLA coach Chip Kelly allowing a dynamic quarterback to fully use his abilities. It also raised a question: Why didn’t Thompson-Robinson run more often during the Bruins’ 48-42 loss to Colorado at Folsom Field?
Thompson-Robinson’s 109 yards rushing in nine carries easily outpaced the 71 yards the team’s four running backs managed in a combined 15 carries. Demetric Felton Jr. had 57 yards in 10 carries before leaving with an injury. Keegan Jones had 11 yards in one carry to go with his 26-yard touchdown catch. Kazmeir Allen had three yards in two carries in a cameo role. Brittain Brown had zero yards in two carries, including a fourth-down play in which he was stuffed for no gain.
Thompson-Robinson was credited with only one run in the first half, on the play in which he fumbled after an awkward fake handoff to Felton. He attributed the Bruins’ more explosive offense in the second half, when it scored 28 points, to Kelly’s tinkering with his play calls.
“Coach made some great in-game adjustments,” Thompson-Robinson said. “We saw what their base looks were gonna be.”
Those watching at home might have wondered what took him so long. Kelly said Thompson-Robinson’s 40 passes were mostly a function of the Bruins trailing big in the first half after turning over the ball four times.
But after two-plus seasons of leading UCLA’s offense, it seems obvious that Thompson-Robinson is most effective when he’s mixing in runs or at least making defenses worry that he might take off without a moment’s notice.
“He can make plays with his feet and his arm,” Colorado coach Karl Dorrell said of Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 303 yards and four touchdowns to go with his ground totals. “He got hot in the second half. It was really a challenge for us defensively.”
Thompson-Robinson’s running game represented his better half against the Buffaloes. He was inconsistent throwing the ball, completing half of his passes and failing to see Colorado linebacker Carson Wells, who stood in the path of one throw intended for Kyle Philips. Wells tipped the ball to himself for an interception and the Buffaloes scored on the next play.
Thompson-Robinson’s two turnovers might have destined the Bruins to lose on a night they didn’t seem to know how to win until it was too late.
“Coach Bible brings in a statistic from the NFL,” Thompson-Robinson said, repeating the philosophy of quarterbacks coach Dana Bible. “If you have two or more turnovers, you might as well go home.”
Anyone who watched Dorrell even casually during his five seasons as UCLA’s coach came to understand that he rarely shows excitement. That continued to be the case Saturday even after he guided his new team to a victory over his alma mater, where he also made his only previous head coaching stop.
Dorrell said he didn’t get emotional until contemplating what the victory meant to his players.
“I am just so proud of them and what they accomplished today,” Dorrell said. “It gives us a start to recognize that we are an up-and-coming program.
“For me personally, I haven't been on UCLA’s sideline in over 13 years. I have been at four or five different stops since then. There wasn’t any emotional reaction, from my standpoint, because of me being an alumnus there. We are going to be playing UCLA every year in the South Division. It is all about taking care of business and taking care of the things that are right in front of you and going onto the next one. The next one is Stanford, and we have to get ready for that one.”
Colorado officials said 619 family members of players, including 140 from UCLA, requested tickets for the game after Boulder County Public Health capped attendance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The official attendance was 554.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.