They are the plays that separate the good teams from the ones that have a way to go.
They’re also the ones UCLA struggled to do in recent seasons.
Remember the big kickoff return, followed by the big passing play, that the Bruins gave up in the last minute against USC in 2020? Or the late stop they failed to generate in the closing seconds against Fresno State in 2021?
Now making those plays is becoming routine. A win over southern Alabama ended with UCLA stuffing a fake field goal play before driving in their own field goal to win the game.
On Friday night at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins erased any last-minute drama by converting two third downs in the final drive of their 40-32 win over No. 15 Washington.
Here are four takeaways from the game that brought UCLA (5-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) to a tie with USC atop the Pac-12 standings:
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was clearly upset by media reports that his team had been fired despite its undefeated start before the Washington game. After throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for another score on Friday, he retweeted a USA Today comment that asked, “Have you ever seen a less impressive 4-0 team?”
“I read it,” Thompson-Robinson said of what is being written. “I get notifications like everyone else. And if you think words don’t hurt, they do. They do it and I always remember it even if I don’t say anything. So we have a lot of things ahead of us. Right now, we’re focused on Utah.”
The narrative had changed on Friday night, with Thompson-Robinson gaining widespread admiration on social media. Among those offering praise was Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who tweeted: “UCLA QB is tuff!”
“I appreciate it!” answered Thompson-Robinson, who completed 24 of 33 passes for 315 yards, eclipsing his Washington counterpart Michael Penix Jr.
Widely ignored after four wins against lesser competition, the Bruins garnered a lot of attention with a nationally televised victory over the Huskies.
Does UCLA deserve to be in the ranking?
Said safety Stephan Blaylock, who had one of his team’s two interceptions: “I think so, but we’ll leave that up to” poll voters.
Said Thompson-Robinson: “We’ll let you guys decide that.”
It’s a safe bet to say the Bruins will break into the national standings for the first time since last October, when a loss to Arizona State eliminated them for the remainder of the 2021 season.
The bigger question is whether they can stay ranked with matchups against No. 12 Utah and No. 13 Oregon looming.
The other face
Given the opponent, the UCLA defense became one of his best performances of the Chip Kelly era.
The start had a familiar feel as the Huskies had a touchdown on their opening drive, but the Bruins toughened up considerably as their offense put up a career-high 24 points starting midway through the second quarter.
UCLA became the first team this season to fire Penix, doing so twice, and also intercepted two of his passes. Much of Penix’s 345 passing yards were generated in desperation with the Bruins comfortably ahead.
Consider it the first sign that UCLA’s defense is truly new and improved under freshman coordinator Bill McGovern.
A hot ticket?
UCLA may no longer play in the Tarp Bowl starting next weekend.
Capacity has been reduced to 53,390 in the Rose Bowl with giant blue tarps covering the tops of both end zones, but at least one set of tarps could roll out next weekend. The Bruins will face Utah, the defending Pac-12 champion and a team with a fan base that likes to leave large swathes of opposing stadiums awash in red.
More importantly, the Bruins are building the kind of excitement the team hasn’t enjoyed since beating Louisiana State early last season. The crowd of 41,343 for UCLA’s game against Washington was a season high and impressive given that it was played on a Friday night.
Expect more fans and less tarps for the Utes.