A day that started before dawn with some feisty fun on a national stage — ESPN analyst Lee Corso donning a bear head and earning a kiss from Bill Walton after picking UCLA to upset No. 10 Oregon — ended with more quiet disappointment, the Bruins slinking off the Rose Bowl field and back into the college football shadows.
Ultimately, UCLA didn’t show itself to be worthy of the hype. Its veterans made inexplicable mistakes, its defense sagged until the final minutes and its battered quarterback left with an injury after being driven into the grass one last time.
Bruins coach Chip Kelly praised his team’s resilience in nearly completing an improbable comeback behind a freshman backup quarterback Saturday before falling short in a 34-31 loss while also acknowledging the opportunity lost on a cool, overcast afternoon.
“I won’t discount that,” Kelly said after his team fell to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12. “It was a huge opportunity. We just came up a little short, so we still have to take the same approach.”
The problem continues to be the payoff for that approach. Coming close against conference heavyweights in Kelly’s fourth season with a team stacked with seniors doesn’t seem to portend a sustainable breakthrough.
The Bruins couldn’t get enough stops to sustain their early momentum after taking a 14-0 lead that had the crowd of 55,675 rollicking. They couldn’t run the ball, generating a season-low 110 yards. They continually made baffling mistakes.
Senior safety Quentin Lake negated his own interception by being offsides on one play and repeating the mistake on the next. Redshirt junior tight end Greg Dulcich was twice flagged for false starts and dropped a pass. Sophomore punter Luke Akers couldn’t handle a snap and got pummeled before he could get off a punt.
“You have to clean those up, you know,” Kelly said. “Those are self-inflicted wounds.”
UCLA’s offensive line struggled against a Ducks defense designed to stop the run and failed to protect Thompson-Robinson, who was sacked three times and pressured several others. Bruins running backs Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet combined for only 90 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.
“Anybody in the offensive room would tell you,” Bruins guard-tackle Jon Gaines II said, “this is a game on the O-line.”
Thompson-Robinson gutted his way through hit after hit until he could no longer continue, getting sandwiched between Oregon defenders Kayvon Thibodeaux and Kristian Williams and departing with 65 seconds left.
“I’m okay!” Thompson-Robinson, who completed 22 of 41 passes for 216 yards with one touchdown and one interception, tweeted long after the game ended.
Ready or not, the Bruins got a look at their future in the final minute when Ethan Garbers trotted onto the field. The backup quarterback who had thrown two passes in his career before Saturday came in with UCLA at its own 39-yard line and needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win.
“We trusted him with doing his job,” Gaines said.
Garbers looked plenty capable, converting on fourth and eight when he zipped a 10-yard pass to Kyle Philips to the Oregon 39. An incompletion followed before Garbers threw a pass near the sideline that Ducks cornerback DJ James intercepted and returned 19 yards while thrusting a triumphant finger into the air.
The Ducks (6-1, 3-1) could exhale after nearly squandering a 34-17 lead that became more than a little shaky after UCLA’s Jordan Genmark Heath and Jay Shaw ended the Ducks’ next two drives with interceptions.
Those takeaways couldn’t compensate for the damage done by Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown, who threw for 296 yards and ran for 85 more, including a 43-yard touchdown that gave the Ducks their 34-17 advantage with 13:53 left in the game.
Somehow, UCLA still had a chance to win.
Shaw’s interception in the end zone gave the Bruins the ball at their own 20-yard line with three minutes left. In one of UCLA’s last mistakes, tackle Alec Anderson was called for holding, forcing the Bruins into a second-and-long situation that put them further into desperation mode.
Under more pressure, Thompson-Robinson was hurt on the next play.
The day had started on UCLA’s campus with a far more upbeat vibe, the school hosting ESPN’s “College GameDay” for the first time since it beat Oregon here in 1998. Kelly hugged the Ducks mascot in a reunion for the former Oregon coach and held a selfie stick attached to a camera, panning the crowd.
The mood was buoyant as UCLA sought its first win over a top-10 team since beating Texas in 2010. The Bruins’ bid started on ESPNews because another game went long and the Bruins might have wanted it to end there after suffering their third consecutive home loss.
“We’re extremely, extremely close from being a great, great team,” Genmark Heath said. “And I think you guys see that every single week.
“Once we take care of those little things, the game won’t even be close.”