Dorian Thompson-Robinson walked behind his teammates huddled on the sideline, clapping his hands in encouraging fashion before patting a few helmets.
Somebody else was going to have to win the game for UCLA after its starting quarterback went down Saturday night at Arizona Stadium.
Thompson-Robinson had suffered an apparent ankle injury late in the third quarter against Arizona, turning the game into a battle of backups after the Wildcats went into the game without star quarterback Khalil Tate.
UCLA’s Austin Burton, making his first college appearance, needed to help the Bruins drive nearly the length of the field for a tying field goal that would force overtime or a go-ahead score that would give them sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South Division.
They got neither.
Burton engineered a drive that put his team well within field-goal range, but J.J. Molson’s 39-yard attempt sailed wide right with 34 seconds left, and the Wildcats held on for a 20-17 victory that sapped all of the Bruins’ momentum from their crazy comeback last weekend over Washington State.
“It’s frustrating when you feel like you let one slip away,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, “and that’s what I think we did today.”
Kelly, whose team struggled once again with poor tackling and soft coverage, turning Arizona freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell into a breakout star in his first college start, lamented all the things that went wrong before the climactic kick.
“There were a lot of other plays during the course of the game that we could have made that wouldn’t have made it come down to one kick at the end of the game,” Kelly said after his team fell to 1-4 overall and 1-1 in conference play.
Moments before his miss, Molson had made a field goal from the same distance that didn’t count because the Wildcats (3-1, 1-0) called a timeout. The normally reliable kicker has struggled this season, making just two of five field goals, including a 37-yarder in the third quarter Saturday.
“I have a lot of confidence in J.J.,” said UCLA running back Joshua Kelley, whose season-high 127 rushing yards weren’t enough to offset his team’s defensive deficiencies. “He’s a great player so I’m not worried about him at all.”
The Bruins had hoped they wouldn’t need to line up for a field goal after starting their last drive at their own nine yard-line with 2:52 left in the game. Burton completed his first three passes on the drive, including a 21-yarder to tight end Jordan Wilson, and ran eight yards for another first down.
But on third and 10 at Arizona’s 25-yard line, Burton connected with running back Demetric Felton Jr. on a completion that went for just four yards, bringing out Molson. Burton finished the night having completed five of nine passes for 48 yards.
“Austin did a nice job,” Kelly said. “Austin gave us an opportunity to tie the game and go into overtime.”
Burton entered the game late in the third quarter after Thompson-Robinson took a big hit, forcing him to limp off the field and crouch on the sideline.
All Burton had to do to energize the Bruins’ offense was hand the ball off to Kelley, who juked his way for 36 yards down to the Arizona three-yard line. On the next play, Kelley plunged into the end zone to give his team a 17-13 advantage.
“You get a new quarterback in, it’s like, all right, you’re gonna lean on the run game more to get him settled in,” Kelley said. “So I definitely felt like, all right, I have to, you know, I gotta start making plays.”
The biggest ones were made by Arizona, which retook the lead after converting a fourth-and-one on its next drive thanks to a questionable referee spot. The Wildcats cashed in when running back Gary Brightwell broke two tackles on a 10-yard touchdown run that provided the game’s final points.
Even before Thompson-Robinson was hurt, the Bruins looked nothing like the offensive juggernaut that had dropped 50 points on Washington State last weekend in a span of less than 19 minutes to complete the second-biggest comeback in school history. They reverted to their early-season habit of looking unstoppable on the game’s opening drive and then sputtering for long stretches.
Thompson-Robinson completed 17 of 33 passes for 180 yards, including a two-yard touchdown to tight end Matt Lynch on UCLA’s opening drive. Thompson-Robinson also threw one pass directly into the arms of Arizona cornerback Lorenzo Burns.
A bad game for UCLA’s secondary got exponentially worse early in the third quarter when Arizona running back Darrius Smith came out of the backfield, caught a pass without a defender in the vicinity at the Wildcats’ 47-yard line and ran untouched down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
“That was a little bit of a backbreaker,” Kelly said.
The all-too-easy score gave Arizona a 13-10 lead, its first advantage of the game,
Gunnell, whose only previous college experience came this month in mop-up duty against Northern Arizona, completed 29 of 44 passes for 352 yards with one touchdown. His performance continued UCLA’s maddening habit of making both highly touted and relatively unknown quarterbacks look prolific.
“We could have done a better job,” Bruins linebacker Krys Barnes said after his team gave up 451 yards of offense. “Communication around the board with the DBs and the front seven, we’ve got to elevate our game there.”
Two weeks off weren’t sufficient to help Tate fully recover from the hamstring injury he suffered late in the Wildcats’ game against Texas Tech on Sept. 14. It was the second consecutive season that Tate didn’t play against the Bruins. He missed last year’s game because of a sore ankle.
Arizona running back J.J. Taylor also missed the game because of a lingering lower leg injury, depriving the Wildcats of the 148.6 yards rushing that Tate and Taylor combined to average over the season’s first three games.
The way everything turned out, they were just fine.