Chip Kelly placed his arm around Dorian Thompson-Robinson as they walked up the tunnel inside the Coliseum, a tender moment between a coach and his quarterback on a day there was little to be sentimental about.
Thompson-Robinson added his name to the pantheon of gutty performances in the crosstown rivalry Saturday but ultimately had nothing to show for it after UCLA’s defense faltered badly during a 52-35 loss to USC, which is No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“Sorry Bruin nation,” the sophomore tweeted after a showing in which there was almost nothing to regret on his part.
With the Trojans gearing their defense to stop UCLA running back Joshua Kelley one year after he had stomped his way to a rivalry-record 289 rushing yards, Thompson-Robinson became his team’s go-to guy. He delivered on play after play, running for first downs and repeatedly finding his favorite receivers on the way to accounting for 431 yards of total offense and four touchdowns before leaving with five minutes left after absorbing a hit on fourth down.
“He was absolutely electric,” said Kelley, who was held to 45 yards in 15 carries, an average of only three yards per rush. “He was sensational. He made a lot of plays, and he just gave you a glimpse of what he’s going to be doing these next few years.”
Thompson-Robinson’s total offensive yardage was the second most by a UCLA player against the Trojans, topped only by Tommy Maddox’s 445-yard performance in 1990.
Thompson-Robinson completed 26 of 44 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Tight end Devin Asiasi (five catches for 141 yards) and wide receiver Kyle Philips (12 catches for 123 yards) were the primary beneficiaries.
“Dorian had his best day throwing the football,” Kelly said.
Thompson-Robinson also ran for 64 yards and a touchdown even while taking into account USC’s three sacks. After one early run in which he was knocked out of bounds, he appeared to jaw at the USC defender in a rebuttal of confidence.
“He wasn’t running out of bounds, wasn’t running away from contact,” Philips said. “He was tucking his head down, running through contact, extending our drives.”
Thompson-Robinson guided the Bruins (4-7 overall, 4-4 Pac-12 Conference) to touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second half, pumping his arm after a seven-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chase Cota and later pulling his team to within 45-35 with 12:16 left in the game when he pitched the ball to Kelley for a one-yard touchdown run.
UCLA needed a defensive stop to have a realistic chance to complete the comeback but couldn’t get it, as the Trojans added to their lead on the next drive to restore a 17-point advantage.
Thompson-Robinson gamely played on, converting one third down when he ran for 26 yards and another when he ran for seven to give the Bruins a first down at the USC 15-yard line. Their hopes of another score ended when Thompson-Robinson eluded two defenders before getting smashed by USC safety Talanoa Hufanga while also being penalized for intentional grounding after he flung the ball out of bounds.
Thompson-Robinson rose slowly and made a long, agonizing walk to the sideline before being replaced by backup quarterback Austin Burton, his day complete as the Bruins held him out for precautionary reasons.
If there was one regret for Thompson-Robinson, it was likely the pass he had intercepted late in the first quarter with UCLA holding a 7-3 lead with the ball at the Trojans’ 27. Thompson-Robinson tried to connect with Philips but instead threw the ball directly toward USC cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart, who made the interception.
The mistake could easily be forgiven on a day he continued to win his coach’s appreciation.
“I thought he battled today and was a true warrior in what he did and how he played the game,” Kelly said. “He’s such a competitor, he’s trying to win every snap when he’s out there.”