So many things had to go right for UCLA after everything went wrong.
If Stephan Blaylock didn’t rip the ball out, forcing a fumble that Elijah Gates recovered. …
If Chase Cota didn’t squeeze his way between two defenders for a 37-yard touchdown catch. …
If Demetric Felton didn’t stiff-arm two defenders on the way to a 94-yard touchdown catch. …
If Jay Shaw didn’t force a fumble after Washington State’s Dezmon Patmon had broken two tackles on the play. …
If Dorian Thompson-Robinson didn’t perfectly sell the fake to the left side of the field, only to look to his right and find Devin Asiasi for a touchdown pass. …
If Thompson-Robinson didn’t limp his way into the end zone for a three-yard run after getting hurt earlier in the game. …
If Kyle Philips didn’t break three tackles while crisscrossing the field on his way to a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown. …
If Krys Barnes didn’t wrap up Washington State’s Easop Winston Jr., causing the ball to pop out. …
If Felton didn’t sprint and spin his way into the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown catch with 67 seconds left. …
If Keisean Lucier-South didn’t blindside Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon on the next play, causing a fumble that Josh Woods recovered. …
If … well, you get the idea.
It all fell into place for UCLA on Saturday night at Martin Stadium after the Bruins fell into a 32-point hole with less than seven minutes left in the third quarter. At one point, ESPN gave the 19th-ranked Cougars a 99.9% probability of victory.
Final score: UCLA 67, Washington State 63.
“It’s crazy, huh?” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, whose team scored 50 points in the second half, topping the 42 it had scored in its first three games combined. “I always thought we could be a good football team if we can be consistent.”
A scout from the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions, sensing the pointlessness of it all midway through the third quarter, rose from his seat in the press box, let out a heavy sigh and ascended the stairs toward the exit.
Here’s hoping someone stopped him to watch a finish that illustrated why sports are life’s great unscripted drama.
It might have gone down as UCLA’s wildest game in its 100 years of football, even though technically it qualified as only the second-largest comeback in school history. The Bruins rallied from 34 points down against Texas A&M in September 2017 but had never experienced anything like this.
UCLA gave up 63 points, 720 yards, nine touchdown passes … and won, prevailing in a game in which the teams combined for 130 points, a Pac-12 Conference record.
The Bruins (1-3 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) were unfailingly awful before things went haywire. Their secondary got repeatedly burned, defenders missed tackle after tackle and the special teams gave up a 45-yard punt return.
It was almost all Bruins after Washington State left tackle Liam Ryan hoisted Gordon into the air in celebration of his seventh touchdown pass, which gave their team a 49-17 lead. Even after the Cougars (3-1, 0-1) gave up 29 unanswered points, victory seemed assured when they broke up Thompson-Robinson’s fourth-down pass with 2½ minutes left to get the ball back.
But Washington State couldn’t run out the clock, Barnes forcing a contested fumble that Woods recovered for his third takeaway. UCLA’s defense forced six turnovers, tripling the two takeaways it had generated in the season’s first three games.
“Our defense, obviously, you look at the points and all the other stuff they gave up,” Kelly said after his team surrendered 720 yards, a school record in the modern era, “but they came up with turnovers and that was huge for us.”
After his team got the ball back for one more chance at victory, Kelly pushed the foam microphone on his headset toward his mouth to call his next play.
It took three plays for UCLA to score, Felton catching a short third-down pass from Thompson-Robinson and weaving through defenders for the go-ahead touchdown. The normally stoic Kelly couldn’t contain his glee, smiling and slapping hands with a few players.
Somehow, despite the circumstances, these were guttiest of Bruins.
“I just kept on telling our guys just to keep fighting,” said Felton, who added a zigzagging, 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in addition to his 94-yard catch and game-winning play. “You know, if we keep fighting, keep on doing our jobs, there’s nothing that can stop us.”
There had been another believer on the sideline, Cota revealing afterward that graduate assistant Jerry Neuheisel had channeled his father Rick’s relentless optimism by continually telling the receivers they were going to drive and score.
“There was just something there,” Cota said, “and we were all excited to keep playing and we just never doubted ourselves and it was fun.”
Thompson-Robinson celebrated the game’s final score by spinning in triumph, arms raised over his head. It was the night that changed everything for a once-slumping sophomore who threw for a career-high 507 yards and five touchdowns while running for two more touchdowns despite getting waylaid earlier in the game.
“I was probably the happiest man in the world for my boys,” said Thompson-Robinson, whose 564 total yards of offense were a school record, breaking the 515 yards that Cade McNown generated against Miami in 1998.
Thompson-Robinson said he cried afterward, realizing the significance of the moment given how hard the Bruins had worked without any tangible payoff before Saturday.
“We put in so much time and effort into this,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and to see it all pay off finally is definitely special.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach had appeared to troll Thompson-Robinson and Kelly on Twitter earlier in the week, posting a GIF of Henry Winkler from the film “The Waterboy.” Winkler portrayed a coach who had lost his way, and Leach seemingly seized on this amid Kelly’s struggles with an indecisive offense that scored just 14 points in each of its first three games. The caption on the tweet read “Dorian fakes to the left. No … He fakes to the right … He doesn’t fake … He pretends to fake.”
Thompson-Robinson enjoyed the last laugh, retweeting Leach’s image with a GIF of somebody cracking up and slapping his knee in delight. Maybe somebody should have told Leach that Winkler is a big UCLA fan, regularly appearing at Bruins’ games inside Pauley Pavilion.
“HA!” Thompson-Robinson’s caption read. “GOT HEEM!”
Indeed he did, in most unexpected fashion.