After playing in front of a sold-out crowd of over 85,000 people and entering as a 30.5-point underdog, freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a succinct assessment of his first career start.
“It was a lot better than last week,” he said.
UCLA remained winless after spotting then-No. 6 Oklahoma 42 unanswered points in a 49-21 loss, but the Bruins showed spurts of success against one of the most talented teams in the country.
“This will help our team grow,” said coach Chip Kelly. “It’s one thing about this school that I really admire is that we’re not going to play I-AA teams. I don’t know teams get better that way. You go out and score 50 on somebody and then you get your starters out in the first quarter. That doesn’t make you better.”
Redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson torched the Sooners with a 65-yard catch-and-run on third-and-long, and senior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi finished the combo by punching it into the end zone from three yards out.
Oklahoma challenged sophomore cornerback Darnay Holmes with a deep pass on its first play of the game, but Holmes knocked it away. He later intercepted a pass from Sooner quarterback Kyler Murray on another deep route.
Even the much-maligned defense held an opposing team without a 100-yard rusher for the first time since November 2016 against Oregon State. It even dropped Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon for a loss on fourth-and-one just before halftime, a stop the Bruins would seldom accomplish in former coach Jim Mora’s final two years.
Sooner running back Rodney Anderson, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, also only managed 19 yards on six carries before exiting with an injury after the first quarter.
But the performance that most engenders hope in UCLA’s future success was that of the true freshman quarterback.
In more than a half of play against Cincinnati, Thompson-Robinson threw for a scanty 117 yards. The only scoring drive he led involved him handing the ball off twice and freshman running back Kazmeir Allen outracing the defense to the end zone.
Against Oklahoma, Thompson-Robinson made plays.
He found Wilson on the aforementioned 65-yard gain, and he threw a perfect 45-yard deep ball to junior wide receiver Theo Howard to put UCLA at the doorstep of the end zone. Thompson-Robinson also threw his first career touchdown pass on a fourth-and-goal play, albeit in garbage time.
Each of those throws, as well as when he kept the ball on the read option, are indicative of a freshman starting to trust his reads more and play less tentatively.
“It’s not hard learning everything,” Thompson-Robinson said, who completed 16-of-26 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown. “It’s more of being able to process it and be able to go through your reads as fast as possible.”
Speeding up his mental processing capability is crucial, since the Bruins’ offensive line continued to struggle to protect him in the pocket.
Oklahoma sacked the freshman six times and hurried him two more times. UCLA has now allowed 11 sacks in its first two games after allowing 29 all of last season. Redshirt sophomore left guard Michael Alves said having new starters at each offensive line position also lends itself to a steep learning curve.
“While we’re trying to learn their defense, but at the same time, we’re trying to learn how our technique needs to work to block their defense,” Alves said. “Depending on the fronts they come out in, there’s tons of different variables as to how we block something and I think we just need to be quicker to identify how to block those fronts.”
Kyler Murray impresses
The Oakland Athletics selected Murray with the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s MLB Draft, but allowed him to play football this season for Oklahoma before switching to baseball full-time.
Count Kelly among those who hoped the A’s would make a stronger pitch for their top draft pick to report immediately.
“The only guy I’d say I’m disappointed in today I’d say is (A’s executive vice president of baseball operations) Billy Beane,” Kelly said. “I wish he gave the kid more money so he wouldn’t come back. If there was a little bigger prize, maybe (Murray) wasn’t out there.”
Murray threw for his first career 300-yard performance, led Oklahoma with 69 rushing yards and scored five total touchdowns.
Not bad for a soon-to-be professional baseball player.
“You think there’s going to big drop-off when you go from a Heisman Trophy winner, but that kid’s pretty special,” Kelly said.