It started with the most unlikely of gestures from Dorian Thompson-Robinson given the circumstances.
The scoreboard showed his team trailing by 32 points. One of his favorite targets had just dropped a pass. A fourth consecutive loss to start the season seemed assured, as did the further erosion of his remaining supporters.
Somehow, Thompson-Robinson kept believing.
The UCLA quarterback flashed an encouraging thumbs-up to Demetric Felton Jr. after the running back failed to make an easy catch Saturday night against Washington State, forcing a fourth down with 4½ minutes left in the third quarter.
Bruins coach Chip Kelly whirled on the sideline and made the call to go for it, with nothing to lose.
As a graphic on the ESPN broadcast showed the Bruins had converted just two of six fourth downs on the season, ranking No. 90 among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Thompson-Robinson clapped his hands and received the snap out of the shotgun formation on fourth and six at the Cougars’ 39-yard line.
He dropped back before stepping into the pocket with defenders closing within breath-on-the-mirror proximity, firing a pass to receiver Jaylen Erwin at the two-yard line. Two plays later, Thompson-Robinson faked a handoff and ran untouched to his left into the end zone, starting the third-biggest comeback in major college football history and a complete revision of the narrative on his career.
Widely panned for having regressed after an up-and-down freshman season, Thompson-Robinson blossomed into a super sophomore during the Bruins’ wacky 67-63 road victory over then-No. 19 Washington State.
“You can tell he has grown up,” UCLA linebacker Josh Woods said earlier this week. “That’s big-boy football right there.”
Thompson-Robinson threw for 507 yards, nearly doubling his previous career high of 272. He accounted for seven touchdowns — five passing, two rushing — exceeding the five he had compiled through the season’s first three games. He logged 564 yards of total offense, a school record.
Most importantly, he assured his team of a celebratory ending.
Facing a third down at the Cougars’ 15-yard line with the Bruins trailing by three points and just over a minute left in the game, Thompson-Robinson threw a short pass to Felton that the shifty running back turned into a touchdown by weaving through defenders.
After the Bruins (1-3 overall, 1-0 Pac-12 Conference) forced a fumble to preserve their first victory of the season, Thompson-Robinson was smothered with affection. Teammates surrounded him, offering hugs and pats on the helmet. Thompson-Robinson couldn’t help but break down, the tears smearing his eye black as he milled about on the field, savoring a possible resurrection of a season.
“After the game,” Thompson-Robinson said Wednesday, “it was like, holy … like, we really just won this game?”
They did, thanks to a gutsy performance from their quarterback, who sustained one body blow after another in the final minutes, limping his way into the end zone midway through the fourth quarter on a three-yard run. Thompson-Robinson said he finished the game thanks to a jolt of adrenaline, though there may have also been something else afoot.
“He’s one of the toughest quarterbacks I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach,” Kelly said.
Thompson-Robinson had taken it on the chin well before getting smacked there on the Bruins’ first offensive play Saturday when he was pushed into a defensive end. Fans had continually questioned his development on message boards, with one thread titled, “Is DTR the worst starting QB we have had in 20 years?”
The easy answer: No.
But he may be the Bruins’ most scrutinized player in recent memory.
“He has taken a lot of hits early on,” Woods said. “The first two games, a lot of hate and stuff like that … blaming him, wanting him benched. He just comes every week with the same energy and tries to lead the offense.”
The results were certainly different Saturday. Thompson-Robinson said the Bruins scoring 50 points over the final 18 minutes, 48 seconds resulted from Kelly better tailoring his calls to what his players could do.
“He called stuff that I was really comfortable with,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and it just allowed me to go out there and play my game and not have to think so much, just go out there and play ball.”
Safety Quentin Lake practiced Wednesday with white bandages wrapped into a massive club on his right hand. Receiver Theo Howard, running back Martell Irby and linebacker Leni Toailoa worked on the side with a trainer during the portion of practice open to reporters.