UCLA stumbles out of the gate in loss to Cincinnati

UCLA defensive backs Elijah Gates (12) and Carl Jones (35) bring down Cincinnati running back Gerrid Doaks during the first half of the Bruins' season-opening loss Thursday.
(Associated Press)

Dorian Thompson-Robinson had fallen and he couldn’t get up.

The defensive end who mashed him into the artificial turf on UCLA’s final offensive play planted a hand on the quarterback’s chest, making him linger for another moment before he could rise to begin the slow, painful walk off the field.

There was nothing for Thompson-Robinson to savor Thursday night besides a swift exit from Nippert Stadium, and even that was denied.

His showing was one that would make anyone want to get away. Thompson-Robinson committed four turnovers and showed spotty touch on his passes during a season-opening 24-14 loss to Cincinnati that raised doubts about how much the Bruins had progressed under coach Chip Kelly.


They looked a lot like the version that stumbled its way to three wins last season, except with a much worse offense. Their running game suffered from the absence of Joshua Kelley because of a lingering knee injury and their passing game regressed behind Thompson-Robinson’s flurry of mistakes.

Joshua Kelley, Theo Howard and Darnay Holmes don’t play in the Bruins’ 24-14 loss to Cincinnati after dealing with training camp injuries.

Aug. 29, 2019

The sophomore twice had the ball slip out of his hands for fumbles and had two passes intercepted after once throwing the ball up for grabs and on another occasion throwing into double coverage.

“Obviously with four turnovers, all from the quarterback, that’s not good,” said Thompson-Robinson, who described his play as “poor” on a night he completed eight of 26 passes for 156 yards with two touchdowns to go with the two interceptions.

That wasn’t the only issue confronting UCLA’s offense on a night it generated only 218 yards. It played without receiver Theo Howard because he had not fully recovered from a wrist injury, depriving them of their top two playmakers.

UCLA running back Demetric Felton carries the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter of the Bruins' loss to Cincinnati on Thursday.
(Getty Images)

Demetric Felton, subbing for Kelley, was nearly a one-man show at running back and it wasn’t much of a show. Felton gained 71 yards in 23 carries, averaging 3.1 yards per attempt, but he also contributed the Bruins’ top offensive play with a 75-yard catch and run for a touchdown in the second quarter.

“I ran out and the guy who was supposed to be covering me wasn’t there,” said Felton, who eluded a defender after making a short catch. “I just looked around, Dorian put it right on the money and I just tried to make a play.”

UCLA’s secondary looked lost without safety Darnay Holmes, who sat out because of an undisclosed injury that had not fully healed. Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder continually found open receivers against sagging coverage while completing 18 of 26 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

A bigger problem for the Bruins was continuing the kind of foolish mistakes that plagued them last season.

Kelly lamented his team’s inability to score in the final minute of the first half after cornerback Jay Shaw intercepted a pass and returned it 66 yards to the Cincinnati 34-yard line. Shaw was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, moving the ball back 15 yards, and Thompson-Robinson was sacked for a 10-yard loss on the final play of the half.

“We made a lot of mistakes that you can’t make when you’re playing against a really good team,” Kelly said.

Chip Kelly’s second season at UCLA has started off much like his first -- with a loss to Cincinnati that questions how much progress the program is making.

Aug. 29, 2019

Thompson-Robinson’s first two turnovers led to Cincinnati touchdowns. After UCLA reached Cincinnati’s five-yard line on its opening possession, Thompson-Robinson rolled out to his left searching for a receiver in the end zone. As he neared the sideline, the quarterback had the ball slip out of his hands for a fumble and the Bearcats recovered.

Thompson-Robinson said the play wasn’t deflating even though the Bruins never appeared to play with the same swagger the rest of the game.

“We always preach, ‘On to the next play,’” Thompson-Robinson said. “‘So what, now what’ type of deal. So no, it wasn’t hard at all.”

There was another blunder on UCLA’s first series of the third quarter. Thompson-Robinson threw into double coverage on third down and his pass was intercepted by a diving Perry Young at the Bruins’ 30. The Bearcats eventually scored on Michael Warren II’s 12-yard run to take a 17-7 lead.

Thompson-Robinson had a handful of moments that won’t make him cringe when watching the game footage. He showed poise on a drive later in the third quarter, waiting in the pocket before finding receiver Chase Cota for a seven-yard touchdown that shaved the deficit to 17-14.

But Cincinnati responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with Warren taking a short third-down pass from Ridder and turning it into a 21-yard touchdown for the game’s final points.

UCLA’s 10-point defeat was a one-point regression from a year ago against the Bearcats but felt like two giant steps backward.

“I care so much about these guys and just to see their faces, it’s really disappointing,” Thompson-Robinson said. “So we’re looking to improve and we’re looking to get better.”