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For UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a flying start that ends with thud

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tries to hurdle Hawaii defensive back Chima Azunna on Aug. 28, 2021.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tries to hurdle Hawaii defensive back Chima Azunna during the Bruins’ 44-10 win Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Up two touchdowns in an eventual rout, Dorian Thompson-Robinson caught everyone’s attention for the wrong reason.

The UCLA quarterback who has yet to make it through a whole college season without injury tried to hurdle a Hawaii defender in the first quarter of Saturday’s opener and was met at the summit in a cringe-worthy collision that made the smattering of fans who braved the midday sun at the Rose Bowl hold their collective breath.

In a 44-10 rout full of UCLA highlights, the failed highlight was the first clip of the game Thompson-Robinson shared first on his Twitter feed. It was one of his few memorable moments in an otherwise forgettable game.

Thompson-Robinson’s string of underwhelming season-opening performances continued with a mundane 130 yards and one touchdown on 10-for-20 passing, but unlike disasters against Cincinnati and Colorado in each of the last two years, the Bruins started the year with a victory. That was the only stat Thompson-Robinson was interested in as the Bruins (1-0) featured dynamic running backs Zach Charbonnet (106 yards, three touchdowns) and Brittain Brown (78 yards, one touchdown).

UCLA still has a lot to prove, but its blowout victory over Hawaii on Saturday shows there’s finally some hope for positive change with the program.

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“Do I need to play better? 10000%,” Thompson-Robinson tweeted less than 15 minutes after he walked off the Rose Bowl field. “Do we have the best RB duo in the country? DAMN RIGHT. Great TEAM win! Back to the practice field.”

Thompson-Robinson, one of the more hyped quarterbacks in the Pac-12, got off to an unremarkable first half while Charbonnet needed only six carries to score three times and put the Rainbow Warriors (0-1) in an insurmountable hole. The quarterback struggled to throw for 45 yards on four-for-12 passing. He sailed passes over open receivers, and the Bruins had to settle for a field goal on their opening drive despite getting the ball on the Hawaii 16-yard line.

It looked like the latest installment of Thompson-Robinson’s season-opening struggles that included four turnovers against Cincinnati in 2019 and two more against Colorado last season.

The difference was this time, the Bruins had developed enough as a team to not need a heroic performance from their quarterback, who didn’t commit a turnover.

“There are going to be times where we’re going to have to rely on Dorian throwing the heck out of the football. It depends on your opponent,” coach Chip Kelly said, noting Thompson-Robinson’s 507-yard, five-touchdown performance against Washington State in 2019. “And then there’s games like this when you have to be able to run it. So we feel confident that we can do both, but every weekend, you get tested to see if you can do both.”

UCLA beat Hawaii 44-10 for its first nonconference victory and first win in a season opener under coach Chip Kelly, and everything felt different.

With an offensive line returning every player who got in a game last year, the Bruins overpowered Hawaii at the line of scrimmage and gained 9.7 yards per rush in the first half. UCLA carried the ball 21 times before halftime compared with 12 passes from Thompson-Robinson.

The quarterback was happy to watch his running backs work but felt he could have made more of his throws.

“There’s a million different excuses I could give with the defense and all that stuff. At the end of the day, we got to maximize our opportunities when given,” Thompson-Robinson said. “If the running game is that strong, we are only going to get a few passes and we have to maximize on all those opportunities.”

With a 28-point halftime lead, Thompson-Robinson’s second-half opportunities looked limited before coaches would pull him for backup Ethan Garbers. Before exiting, the senior found a rhythm with former running back Kazmeir Allen, who blazed down the sideline for a 44-yard touchdown catch, his first since moving to receiver this spring.

Embattled UCLA coach Chip Kelly got an endorsement from analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Matt Leinart, who suggested the Bruins are going to surprise in 2021.

The scoring play on the first drive of the third quarter moved Thompson-Robinson into a tie with Troy Aikman for seventh in school history with 41 touchdown passes.

“Everything Troy has done here I admire and I look up to,” said Thompson-Robinson, who has spoken briefly with the three-time Super Bowl champion when he visits campus. “He is someone I can always go to, and that’s definitely big, but I’m just glad we got the win today and we can look on to next week.”

Thompson-Robinson can move into sixth place with Cory Paus’ 42 touchdowns next week against Louisiana State in UCLA’s marquee nonconference matchup.


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