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 a 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.
Later, Thompson-Robinson zipped a nine-yard touchdown pass over the middle to tight end Greg Dulcich for the go-ahead score during UCLA’s 24-17 victory.
The Bruins could finally exhale after freshman cornerback Devin Kirkwood made a dazzling interception on a pass that he wrested 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 once appeared on the verge of a crushing defeat. Instead, UCLA (5-2 overall, 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.
The Bruins’ first victory here since 2014 also 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 ran 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 his team to run out the clock.
The Bruins won despite converting only three of 12 third downs while allowing the Huskies to make nine of 14. It helped that UCLA intercepted two passes and did not turn the ball over.
Washington held all the momentum midway through the third quarter after defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles broke up what looked like it was going to be a third-down completion when he popped Dulcich just as a pass arrived, forcing an incompletion.
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 of the game for more than eight yards. The Huskies eventually faced a fourth and goal from the one, which they converted when quarterback Dylan Morris sneaked into the end zone for a touchdown that tied the score at 17.
Thompson-Robinson followed one of his worst passing first halves, a three-yard clunker last week against Arizona, with one of his best. He was nearly flawless throwing the ball against the Huskies, completing 10 of 12 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown to go with a rushing touchdown that gave the Bruins a 17-10 lead at the game’s midpoint.
The latter score was filled with drama, Thompson-Robinson getting his body low on fourth and goal from the one-yard line and surging into a scrum of bodies. Referees waited long after the play was completed to signal a touchdown that gave UCLA a 17-3 lead late in the second quarter.
Thompson-Robinson’s touchdown pass came on a trick play. With left tackle Sean Rhyan and Dulcich lined up near one sideline, receiver Kam Brown raced behind his teammates and used their blocking to score on a 17-yard flanker screen.
It felt as if UCLA should have held a bigger halftime lead given that it had outgained Washington 250-148 in total yardage and only punted once. But Kelly might have gotten a little too cutesy when he called for a Swinging Gate that went for a one-yard loss when five UCLA players couldn’t block three defenders.
The Bruins eventually kicked a 39-yard field goal to take a 10-3 advantage midway through the second quarter.
Washington did not look like a team coming off a bye, having trouble getting the right personnel on the field before a punt and sending one snap sailing several feet over Morris’ head for a 25-yard loss.
Morris faced an additional burden given his team struggled to gain any yardage on the ground, averaging 0.3 yards per rush in the first half. The quarterback found some rhythm late in the first half, lofting a 26-yard touchdown pass to Odunze in the corner of the end zone with 52 seconds left in the first half.
UCLA played without its leading receiver, Kyle Philips, who did not make the trip and was “unavailable” according to an athletic department spokesman.