An unexpected and most unpleasant sound filled the otherwise quiet Rose Bowl late Saturday night.
“U of A!”
UCLA was powerless to stop Arizona’s offense or its fans in a stunning late-season collapse. The No. 12 Bruins’ 34-28 loss to the Wildcats put a huge dent in UCLA’s Pac-12 championship hopes and removed considerable luster from the crosstown rivalry game next weekend against USC.
For the briefest of moments, it seemed as if the Bruins might engineer another happy ending.
With one final chance, facing a fourth and 10 at Arizona’s 29-yard line, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambled under heavy pressure. He eluded multiple defenders before finally unleashing a pass toward wide receiver Jake Bobo streaking across the back of the end zone.
Bobo dove, fully extending his body and his arms, but could not come up with the ball, the crowd gasping in disappointment after defeat was assured for the 19½-point favorite Bruins (8-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-12).
“Probably a step away,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, “from making a play and winning the football game.”
The Bruins seemed a step away all game, particularly on defense. The biggest reason for the letdown? UCLA gave up 6.7 yards per play and 436 yards to the Wildcats (4-6, 2-5) while remaining unable to contain slippery quarterback Jayden de Laura.
“We had him a few times but couldn’t get him to the ground,” Kelly said, “and I think he kept some of the plays alive scrambling and stayed on his feet extending plays, you know, there were a couple of them that were five, six, seven, eight seconds, but that’s a credit to him, he runs around. When he get scrambling, he’s able to make throws and he made them.”
After weeks of similarly soft defense, the inability to generate stops finally caught up to UCLA in a big way. With the Victory Bell ringing over loudspeakers and fans roaring as Arizona faced a fourth and four at UCLA’s 17-yard line with 6½ minutes left, De Laura fired a touchdown pass to Tetairoa McMillan to give the Wildcats a 31-28 lead.
De Laura was a game-long menace for the Bruins, completing 22 of 28 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns. Kelly chose to credit the Wildcats quarterback rather than blame his defense for the outcome.
“Our guys played with great effort,” Kelly said, “but he extended plays like nobody we played against this year and I can’t recall since we’ve been here a kid that’s run around like that, you know, and I think all those big plays he made when he was running around were the difference in the football game.”
On the night he returned from a one-game absence, UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet rolled up 181 yards rushing and three touchdowns but had a huge drop on third down as the Bruins tried to answer Arizona’s score.
During the next play, with Thompson-Robinson facing heavy pressure, he fired a fourth-down pass over receiver Josiah Norwood to give the ball back to the Wildcats at the UCLA 36-yard line. Arizona tacked on a 23-yard field goal with 1:07 remaining to extend its advantage to 34-28.
Thompson-Robinson completed 26 of 39 passes for 245 yards with one touchdown for an offense that missed do-it-all running back-receiver Kazmeir Allen, who was sidelined by an unspecified injury.
A few minutes after the start of the Bruins’ game, Oregon provided a reminder of the potential for late-season stumbles. The sixth-ranked Ducks fell to Washington at home, severely compromising the Pac-12’s College Football Playoff semifinal hopes.
During the past year, UCLA had avoided unexpected slip-ups under coach Chip Kelly. The Bruins had won nine consecutive games against unranked teams, their previous defeat coming late in October 2021 to Utah — the eventual Pac-12 champion.
They could not sustain the momentum thanks to some self-inflicted wounds that included a blocked field goal and a drive to end the first half that ended with a Thompson-Robinson fumble at Arizona’s 20-yard line.
“Just little things,” Thompson-Robinson said, “we just got to clean it all up.”
Thompson-Robinson had tried in various ways to help on a night his team wasn’t its best, delivering a block for Charbonnet to help free him on a 36-yard run early in the fourth quarter. On the next play, Charbonnet powered his way for a five-yard touchdown to give UCLA a 28-24 advantage.
It was their final highlight on a night the Wildcats did most of the celebrating.
What happened in the first quarter left the Bruins more chilled than the 53-degree temperature at kickoff. Arizona stormed to a 14-0 lead after scoring on two of its first three drives, reviving concerns about UCLA’s defense.
Bruins defensive coordinator Bill McGovern missed a third consecutive game because of an unspecified illness, leading to a collaborative effort among the other assistants. Their game plan could have been thrown out the press box window.
Arizona moved the ball with such ease on back-to-back drives that it almost seemed as if the Wildcats knew the Bruins’ defensive calls. Running back Michael Wiley was the primary antagonist, running up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown and Arizona’s first points.
When it appeared as if the Bruins might hold Arizona on its next drive, forcing third and 18, De Laura rolled out toward the sideline and fired a 22-yard pass to an open Wiley for a touchdown.
It never got any better for UCLA’s defense. By the time the night ended, the Bruins had slipped into a tie with Washington for fourth place in the Pac-12 standings, 1½ games behind leader USC. UCLA can shave one game off that deficit when it plays the Trojans next weekend but now has more work to do than expected to reach the Pac-12 championship game early next month.
“We know it’s not the end, we know we have the rest of the way,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Now we just focus on the next one. Put this behind us, watch the film — watch the ugly, watch the good — and move on to the next one. We got a big one coming up.”