UCLA football staged one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history Saturday night in its 67-63 victory over No. 19 Washington State. The Bruins suffered from a dismal second quarter and poor pass defense early on, but thanks to special teams execution and Cougar turnovers, they got back into it and capitalized late. The historic comeback is a difficult one to unpack, but here are the five most important takeaways from Saturday’s game.
1. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is legit
Just over three weeks ago, I wrote that Thompson-Robinson was out of good fortune.
But the sophomore quarterback earned back the fanbase’s trust and respect tenfold in a single game.
Thompson-Robinson’s 564 total yards were more than Josh Rosen or Troy Aikman ever posted in a single game – and more than any UCLA quarterback for that matter. He only took one sack and it was for just six yards, after his four sacks for -54 yards against No. 5 Oklahoma.
Instead, he was scrambling better than ever. Thompson-Robinson recorded a career-high 57 rushing yards and picked up the first two rushing touchdowns of his collegiate career. Considering he was a top-ranked dual-threat coming out of high school, this was exactly the kind of game Thompson-Robinson needed to gain confidence in his legs.
But running is only half of being a dual-threat. Thompson-Robinson’s 507 passing yards were the real show-stoppers against the Cougars. He had 13 chunk plays through the air and regularly threw the ball into tight windows.
The sophomore had better chemistry with fellow sophomore receiver Chase Cota than he had all season, connecting with the Oregon-native on four passes for 147 yards and one touchdown. Thompson-Robinson also helped redshirt freshman receiver Kyle Philips, redshirt freshman tight end Greg Dulcich and redshirt junior tight end Devin Asiasi put up career games as well.
From his confidence in his arm and legs to his improved chemistry with his offensive line and weapons on the outside, Thompson-Robinson cemented himself as the Bruins’ quarterback for the rest of 2019.
There weren’t any calls for redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Burton after that victory – Thompson-Robinson had a performance for the ages.
2. Demetric Felton is infinitely more dangerous as a Swiss Army knife
Redshirt junior wide receiver Demetric Felton was almost exclusively a wide receiver in his first two seasons in blue and gold.
But in the middle of fall camp, coach Chip Kelly decided to move him to running back.
In the season opener against Cincinnati – with redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley out because of injury – Felton took on the primary ball-carrier role. He racked up 71 yards on 23 carries, demonstrating his inability to put together consistent rushes out of the backfield.
His standout play in that game, however, didn’t come on the ground. Instead, it was a 75-yard touchdown reception from Thompson-Robinson.
Felton’s performance against Washington State on Saturday was more of the same.
With Kelley back to full strength, Felton only had four attempts out of the backfield. He was consistently in motion, moving into the slot and lining up beside Thompson-Robinson in the shotgun on third downs.
Felton scored the game-winner on a screen pass in the slot from 15 yards out, as well as a 94-yarder in the third quarter and a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the second. His raw speed helped him get the jump on linebackers over the middle, and his agility helped him create space on special teams.
Felton shouldn’t be kept out of the backfield due to his inefficiency. Instead, his dynamism allows Kelly to use him in a multitude of ways and keep defenses on their toes – exactly how he was used Saturday night.
3. Fumbles, fumbles, fumbles
The Bruins had forced two fumbles across their first three games of 2019.
On the Cougars’ final eight possessions of Saturday’s game, the Bruins forced four.
Whether it was gang tackling, chase-downs, strip-sacks or simple punch-outs, UCLA’s defense laid it all out in the final two quarters. The Bruins may not have been great at getting stops on the ground or breaking up passes, but their “nothing to lose” mentality helped them break through and secure the victory.
Lucier-South hadn’t played all season because of an academic suspension, and Woods missed the entirety of 2018 with a knee injury. Having the two of them back on the field – in addition to UCLA’s already deep linebacker corps and a scrappy secondary – helped the Bruins remain active and aggressive on the ball all game long.
And without those fumbles, the Bruins lose.
4. Holmes’ play remains worrisome
It’s easy to feel ecstatic after a 32-point comeback, but the Bruins’ performance was far from perfect.
UCLA’s No. 1 cornerback, junior cornerback Darnay Holmes, was probably the furthest from perfect Saturday night.
The pass defense as a whole was lacking, allowing over 500 yards through the air to go along with a Pac-12-record nine passing touchdowns by Cougar quarterback Anthony Gordon. Not all of the blame should be placed on Holmes, but considering he entered the season as a top-tier NFL prospect on multiple preseason award watch lists, he should definitely be better.
The former five-star recruit did have an interception in the game, but it came off a dropped pass by the Cougars. Holmes’ ball awareness is there, demonstrated by that forced turnover, but his coverage skills and speed have fallen compared to last year.
5. The Pac-12 is wide open
Washington State came into Saturday’s game ranked No. 19.
Utah entered its Friday night matchup with USC ranked No. 10.
Both the Cougars and Utes dropped their week four matchups, proving again that the Pac-12 is a chaotic, unpredictable cesspool of raw talent and wild head-to-head matchups. Just when you think UCLA is done and cursed to sink to the bottom of the standings, Kelly leads them to an improbable victory over the conference’s best offense.
Unranked Colorado took down No. 24 Arizona State and Pac-12 North mainstays Washington and Stanford are a combined 0-3 in conference play.
The Bruins are nowhere near the favorites in the Pac-12 South, let’s be completely clear. But if this weekend’s results proved anything, it’s that anything can happen after dark in the Pac-12 – including a UCLA win.