Caleb Wilson rose after extending the ball across the goal line, commencing a celebratory stomp several yards into the end zone while flexing his muscles. A leaping pack of teammates mobbed the tight end, everyone rejoicing in front of a student section furiously waving blue pompoms.
Finally, five games into the season, UCLA had something tangible to celebrate.
The Bruins were no longer pushovers on their own field, bullying the nation’s top scoring defense for long stretches with a punishing run game while pulling within a touchdown of No. 10 Washington early in the fourth quarter.
It felt like a turning point even after the Bruins failed to complete the comeback during a 31-24 loss on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl, significant improvements heralding a breakthrough of sorts for a winless team.
“We know we’re right there, so that’s a good feeling,” UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said after the Bruins (0-5 overall, 0-2 Pac-12 Conference) dropped their first five games for the first time since 1943. “I think that’s really big for us to know we’re that close to getting over the hump.”
The signs of progress were on both sides of the ball.
An offense that had sputtered throughout the season’s early going outscored Washington (5-1, 3-0) 17-7 in the second half thanks in large part to tailback Joshua Kelley, whose 125 yards rushing made him the first Bruins ballcarrier to reach 100 yards in back-to-back games since Paul Perkins early in the 2015 season.
The ball-control approach bolstered a defense that had sagged mightily in the second half of recent games. UCLA gave up only 127 yards after halftime and kept Washington off the scoreboard until tailback Myles Gaskin took a direct snap and sprinted for a two-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave the Huskies a 31-17 lead.
“We saw a lot of great things,” UCLA linebacker Krys Barnes said. “The offense was doing a great thing moving the ball, and the defense was flying around.”
UCLA appeared on the verge of a potential upset early in the fourth quarter when Wilson caught a pass around the five-yard line and spun into the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown. The Bruins trailed 24-17 early in the fourth quarter and were controlling the game after running 27 offensive plays in the third quarter, two more than they had run in the entire first half.
“That was fun,” said Wilson, who caught a season-high eight passes for 102 yards. “I just want that to turn into wins.”
As the defense prepared to trot back onto the field, there was a resoluteness that had been missing earlier this season.
“Let’s go take it,” UCLA defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa said of his mind-set. “Let’s go take the game.”
The Bruins’ defense held the Huskies on their next possession but was back on the field quickly after UCLA went three and out. Washington quarterback Jake Browning made two big plays on third downs, completing a 34-yard pass and scrambling for 14 yards before Gaskins’ touchdown gave Washington some insurance.
Kelley’s two-yard touchdown run with 1:38 left made it a one-score game again, but the Bruins failed to recover the onside kick and Washington ran out the clock on its first victory at the Rose Bowl since 1995.
Thompson-Robinson assembled what was easily his best game, completing 27 of 38 passes for a career-high 272 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He showed touch with deep passes and juked defenders on several runs.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly did not seem emboldened by a strong showing against one of the nation’s best teams. His teams are now 4-24 over their last 28 games going back to the end of the 2015 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly has not won a game since his San Francisco 49ers edged the Rams 22-21 on Dec. 24, 2016.
The losing appeared to be wearing on Kelly. Asked what the toughest part about being 0-4 was, Kellyresponded flatly, “Our record.”
Not much had changed Saturday despite his team’s progress.
“We didn’t high-five in the locker room and say, ‘Hey we got close against a really good team,’ and they are a really good team,” Kelly said. “I’m not a guy that gets solace in ‘We were close.’ That’s not us. Close isn’t good. Close is bad.”
UP NEXT >>> UCLA has won four of the last five games in the series, but California won the last meeting in Berkeley in a 36-10 blowout in 2016.