The play is called peanut punch, something UCLA practices repeatedly each week while teaching defenders how to smack the ball out of a player’s hands.
For much of Friday afternoon, what happened was simply nuts.
A field-goal try bounced off an upright. Three long touchdown passes gave California an 11-point lead over the heavily favored Bruins. There were times when it seemed that UCLA couldn’t even snap the ball without committing a false start.
“You name it, we had it,” Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said of his team’s lagging execution while trying to bounce back from back-to-back losses during a shortened week.
A gutsy decision — or a foolhardy one, depending on your perspective — to go for it on fourth and two at Cal’s 22-yard line with two minutes left failed, giving the Golden Bears one more chance to drive for a tying touchdown.
UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano ended it a few plays later, putting the technique from that practice drill to use when he knocked the ball out of Cal running back Jaydn Ott’s hands. Linebacker Carl Jones Jr. recovered the fumble at the Golden Bears’ 38-yard line and sprinted around the stadium in celebration of the No. 18 Bruins’ 35-28 victory.
After accounting for three touchdowns in what might have been his final college game, Thompson-Robinson took a knee and commenced the celebration as the Bruins put the disappointment of recent weeks behind them. There was pulsating music that made the locker room sound more like a nightclub. Players presented coach Chip Kelly with a birthday cake on the day he turned 59 and completed his best season with the Bruins.
UCLA (9-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12) notched its most wins under Kelly, continuing an upward trajectory in which its win total has increased in each of his five seasons.
“It’s awesome,” Thompson-Robinson said after completing 21 of 30 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. “It’s not something that’s just regularly done around here, getting nine wins. We worked really hard. I’ve been here for a very long time and to see the growth and all the things that go into it is really special.”
Now the Bruins must wait to learn their postseason destination, with the Las Vegas and Sun bowls the most likely possibilities. Thompson-Robinson said his status was “to be determined” as he weighs whether to participate in UCLA’s first postseason appearance since the 2017 Cactus Bowl or opt out to prepare for the NFL draft. The fifth-year senior acknowledged it would be hard to turn down a chance to play in the Las Vegas Bowl given its proximity to where he grew up.
“For sure, for sure,” he said. “Obviously, I want to go back and play in front of my hometown and to be able to get the opportunity to do that would be very special.”
The Bruins could sing the fight song in their locker room for the first time since beating Arizona State early this month after their running game revved back into overdrive, rolling up 352 yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Zach Charbonnet ran for 119 yards in 24 carries, including a five-yard touchdown that gave UCLA a 35-28 lead midway through the fourth quarter after wide receiver Jake Bobo snagged a two-point conversion pass. T.J. Harden (89), Thompson-Robinson (88) and Colson Yankoff (59) added to the rushing tally.
Thompson-Robinson made the Golden Bears (4-8, 2-7) pay for their soft zone coverage by taking off on touchdown runs of 19 and 14 yards, the former touchdown coming as part of a warp-speed drive in which the Bruins drove 75 yards in five plays spanning just 40 seconds before halftime to pull within 21-17.
Harden, a freshman, looked as if he might be the Bruins’ running back of the future while blending speed with the ability to absorb contact and keep running.
What were easily the game’s toughest three yards belonged to Charbonnet. Facing fourth and two at the Cal 33 while trying to run out the clock, the Bruins handed the ball to their toughest running back.
The crowd cheered as Charbonnet slammed into a defender in the backfield before he kept his legs moving and powered ahead for the first down, prompting guard Atonio Mafi to pump his arm excitedly while the UCLA band blared joyfully.
“My play of the game,” Thompson-Robinson said.
There was considerably less enthusiasm after the Bruins reached the 22, only for Thompson-Robinson to roll out and throw an incomplete pass on fourth down.
That gave the ball back to Cal and quarterback Jack Plummer, who had thrown four touchdown passes but wouldn’t add to his total after Medrano’s heroics.
“It was a great way to win a football game,” Kelly said, his expression more of relief than elation. “You know, I think our resiliency showed up, there were some really big plays in the second half.”