A few months from now, it might not be remembered for the swarm of defenders populating UCLA’s backfield or the 42 unanswered points the Bruins allowed in a blowout loss to the nation’s sixth-ranked team.
The lasting takeaway from Sept. 8, 2018, might be that the team found its starting quarterback.
His name is Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and he gamely absorbed all that went wrong Saturday at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in his first career start.
When his offensive line couldn’t sustain blocks, he scrambled and fired passes or eluded linebackers.
When his defense gave up touchdowns, he walked back onto the field with the same resoluteness to get one of his own.
When the game ended and the scoreboard showed Oklahoma 49, UCLA 21, he reflected on how much he had already grown as a true freshman making only his second college appearance.
“I’ll tell you what,” Thompson-Robinson said, “it was a lot better than last week.”
The result was the same as the Bruins fell to 0-2 for the first time since 2010, but there was a palpable promise of better things ahead.
Thompson-Robinson received the starting nod after graduate transfer Wilton Speight was sidelined with the back injury that forced him out of the Bruins’ season opener last weekend. UCLA coach Chip Kelly did not provide an update on Speight’s status other than to say he would be reevaluated once the team returned to Los Angeles.
Thompson-Robinson’s performance could complicate Speight’s future with the Bruins even after he receives medical clearance to return. Thompson-Robinson was steady and poised while completing 16 of 26 passes for 254 yards and one touchdown without an interception.
“He’s shown that he can be a starting quarterback for us,” Bruins guard Michael Alves said. “So we like him back there.”
Thompson-Robinson stunned the sellout crowd of 86,483 on UCLA’s second drive when he connected with tight end Caleb Wilson over the middle on a play that went for 65 yards. The Bruins eventually scored on Bolu Olorunfunmi’s three-yard run to take a 7-0 lead.
The advantage lasted less than two minutes. Oklahoma’s Tre Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards and the Sooners (2-0) scored the first of 42 consecutive points three plays later when tailback Rodney Anderson broke off a three-yard touchdown run.
The Bruins were thoroughly outclassed in almost every category. Their offensive line gave up six sacks — five in the first half — and their running game managed only 2.6 yards per carry. Their special teams gave up two long returns. Their defense was relatively effective against the run but struggled mightily against quarterback Kyler Murray.
Murray, the two-sport star who’s expected to report to an Oakland Athletics’ minor league affiliate this spring to commence his career as a professional outfielder, accounted for five touchdowns. He passed for 306 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s definitely a guy who’s blessed,” said UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes, who momentarily stopped the onslaught when he intercepted one of Murray’s passes in the third quarter. “He can do what he wants. He can sling the rock. He can run the rock.”
Thompson-Robinson also showed he could do both given the slightest protection. He had to leave the game for one play in the third quarter, giving way to backup Devon Modster, after his helmet came off when he was mauled by a defender. He was hardly deterred.
“He didn’t get rattled out there,” Kelly said. “Got banged around a little bit, but I thought he did a really nice job competing all the way to the end. So I was impressed by Dorian.”
Thompson-Robinson’s best moment might have come in the fourth quarter when he zipped a pass toward the sideline that receiver Theo Howard pulled in for a 45-yard gain while making an over-the-shoulder catch.
His first career touchdown pass, in the game’s final minutes, resulted in so little fanfare that Thompson-Robinson didn’t even realize its outcome.
“I actually didn’t really know it was a touchdown pass,” the quarterback said of his nine-yard connection with fellow true freshman Michael Ezeike, “because nobody really got excited at it.”
Thompson-Robinson seemed at ease and upbeat when he met with reporters after the game, acknowledging the need to be quicker with his release and his receiver reads.
He said he knew he would be starting all week barring Speight making a quick recovery. Kelly tried to help formulate a game plan that played to Thompson-Robinson’s strengths by discussing plays that his quarterback liked and felt comfortable with.
Wilson provided a pregame pep talk, telling Thompson-Robinson that he was there for him. Then the quarterback went out and returned the favor, showing that he might be there for the first snap each week.