Was it pluck, or luck?
Did UCLA alter the trajectory of its season amid a gritty comeback last weekend or was it just a matter of everything aligning for one memorable night on the Palouse?
Some answers will be forthcoming Saturday night when the Bruins (1-3 overall, 1-0 Pac-12 Conference) face Arizona (2-1, 0-0) at Arizona Stadium while seeking their first 2-0 start in conference play since 2013.
Beat the Wildcats, and the Bruins can claim progress under coach Chip Kelly and entertain hopes of a winning season with games against hopeless Oregon State and struggling Stanford on the immediate horizon.
Lose, and the Bruins are essentially right back where they started before an epic 67-63 victory over Washington State spared them more tough questions and another joyless week of practice.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson knew which way he wanted the season to head after engineering the second-biggest comeback in school history with a school-record 564 yards of offense against the Cougars.
“The mentality now is you don’t want to go back to that feeling of losing and stuff like that,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and now we know what winning feels like and that joy, we definitely don’t want to go backward.”
It would appear that the only direction for UCLA’s defense is up. The Bruins gave up 611 yards against Oklahoma and a modern-record 720 yards against Washington State but could have difficulty doing any better against an Arizona offense that’s averaging 586 yards per game, ranking No. 3 nationally.
Almost everything the Wildcats do on offense centers around quarterback Khalil Tate, the former Gardena Serra High standout who makes defenses worry about his legs as much as his arm. Tate ran for a 84-yard touchdown this month against Texas Tech and is the only quarterback in Pac-12 history besides former Oregon star Marcus Mariota to log 5,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing.
“You’ve gotta be on your pivot,” UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes said of his approach to defending Tate. “It’s as simple as that. You’ve gotta stay 10 toes down and be dialed in. You never know what he’s gonna do, so you gotta make sure you dialed into your technique and dialed into your keys.”
Holmes is coming off one of the most individually regrettable and collectively satisfying performances of his career. He was repeatedly beaten last week while Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon threw for a school-record nine touchdowns but said that didn’t diminish the euphoria he felt afterward.
“That’s a selfish act if I wasn’t enjoying that moment. I loved every moment of it,” said Holmes, who acknowledged he was still rounding into form after missing the season’s first two games with an ankle injury. “At the end of the day, the great ones get beat. I’m not saying I’m a great one, but I’m working to be a great one and at the end of the day, I take full responsibility and I admit to those things that happened, and if I wasn’t going to admit to those things that’s a foolish thing for me not to say.”
UCLA’s offense is trying to sustain the consistency that allowed the Bruins to score on six consecutive drives as part of a 50-point second half, with a special-teams assist on a punt returned for a touchdown. Thompson-Robinson said he and Kelly were finally on the same page after having apparently read different books earlier in the season.
If UCLA falls behind by a seemingly insurmountable deficit Saturday, all the Bruins have to do is think about last week or glance at Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin, who held the same post at Texas A&M when the Aggies coughed up a 34-point lead against the Bruins in September 2017 during UCLA’s biggest comeback in school history.
Holmes said his team’s latest inconceivable rally was just part of a larger movement toward happier days for a program seeking its first winning season since 2015.
“Those are the types of things we’ve been working for and it finally manifested,” Holmes said, “but we’re just getting started, in my opinion.”