Just under one month ago, nobody would’ve believed you saying UCLA would be in Pac-12 South contention come November. At the time, the Bruins stood at 1-5 with a road game against Stanford and home clash versus Arizona State on the horizon.
Yet, after handing Colorado its fifth straight loss, UCLA’s won three straight and face a bye week at 4-2 in Pac-12 competition with South division games at No. 9 Utah and USC remaining.
Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s been a major reason for UCLA’s recent success. The onetime Las Vegas Bishop Gorman four-star recruit completed 75 percent of his passes Saturday evening, collecting 226 yards and two touchdowns in UCLA’s 31-14 beating of the Buffaloes.
“I think that his accuracy and putting the ball on people and his ability to keep plays alive with his legs, you know, the neat thing about Dorian is that you just keep seeing him grow each week,” UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said. “He keeps putting a better performance on top of a better performance.”
Saturday night marked Thompson-Robinson’s third consecutive game throwing multiple touchdown passes in 2019 and fifth time breaking the 200-yard barrier for his career. He started the game completing 13 of 15 passes, with both incompletions resulting from wideout drops in open space.
“Yeah, that was all Coach Kelly and him putting me in the best position to make those throws,” Thompson-Robinson said. “My receivers did a great job, and our o-line did a great job blocking.”
Redshirt junior Bruins tight end Devin Asiasi hauled in Thompson-Robinson’s first touchdown pass from 16 yards out. Asiasi finished as UCLA’s leading receiver with four catches for 45 yards. The 260-pound former Michigan Wolverine has now caught a pass for the Bruins in eight straight games.
Senior UCLA linebacker Krys Barnes intercepted a Steven Montez throw and placed the Bruins inside Buffalo territory with just under four minutes to play in the first quarter. Thompson-Robinson connected with senior receiver Ethan Fernea for a 45-yard touchdown on the very next play, nine seconds later, giving UCLA a 17-0 advantage.
“Oh yeah, I don’t even think that [Fernea] was expecting me to throw him the ball,” Thompson-Robinson said. “They changed the look up on us, and I just read it out. I gave him a chance and he went and got the ball.”
Chip Kelly points to Thompson-Robinson’s calmness and football I.Q. as two big reasons for his mid-season success.
“He has always been a really cool customer, even the first time that he went in the game,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t too big for him, which is neat to see. But now, he’s got a better understanding and we’ve got a better understanding of him, and there is some reciprocation there.”
A dual-threat top recruit, Thompson-Robinson only attempted around 330 passes in high school. He sat behind former Ohio State and now Miami quarterback Tate Martell for three years, before starting his entire senior season.
“I think that the growth of Dorian is just a by-product of at-bats,” Kelly said. “Some kids come out, you know, Trevor Lawrence had something like 1,300 pass attempts in high school. There’s just a difference between how many times he had a chance.”
Another key proponent to Thompson-Robinson’s impressive play is the effectiveness of redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley, who leads the Pac-12 in rushing. Kelley carried the ball 23 times against Colorado, collecting 126 yards and two scores on over 5 yards per carry. He surpassed 2,100 yards rushing, good for No. 15 in UCLA history.
UCLA allowed the fewest number of points in the Chip Kelly area, limiting the Buffalos passing attack of Montez and wideout Laviska Shenault in the process.
“We were very concerned with the passing attack of this team,” Kelly said. “Montez has been a really good quarterback in this league. They arguably have the best receiver in this league in Shenault.”
Montez’s 60 career touchdowns are tied for the most in Colorado history, while Shenault ranks inside the program’s top 15 for receptions. The Bruins held Montez to 21-of-38 passing. Shenault caught just three passes for 16 yards.
“It’s a group effort when you have something like that,” Kelly said. “I thought that Darnay [Holmes] did a nice job when [Shenault] was iso’d on him one-on-one. But also, when you can get to the quarterback and force the ball out a little bit quicker, that helps.”
Should the Bruins win out, they’ll capture a Pac-12 South title. The Bruins need to secure two of the last three to earn bowl eligibility for the first time in the Chip Kelly era.
“Coach Kelly gave us a couple of days off. So right now, I’m just focused on resting my body,” Thompson-Robinson said. “But it’s definitely a good feeling, to know that you’re in control of your own destiny, and stuff like that, and that you’re able to go and make something out of it. Now we just have to go and put the work in and get it done.”
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.