Chip Kelly started nodding at the mention of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s name.
In the interview room at the Rose Bowl after UCLA’s 48-45 defeat to No. 7 USC on Saturday night, Kelly nodded several more times as he listened to a question about his quarterback.
“He’s special,” Kelly said.
Thompson-Robinson had kept his team in a game in which the opponent was led by a future NFL star in Caleb Williams.
“He’s as a tough as they come,” Kelly said.
Thompson-Robinson’s played the second half with his throwing hand taped.
“The kid’s a warrior,” Kelly said.
Thompson-Robinson was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter only to return two plays later.
All of which made the night as deflating as it was inspiring.
The letdown was more about this game, and even this season. This was as much about the certainty of what USC is becoming and the skepticism over what UCLA will look like in the future.
Because if the Bruins couldn’t take down Lincoln Riley’s Trojans with the fifth-year senior as their on-field leader, what chance would they have in the future without him?
There will be no Pac-12 title for UCLA this year, the loss officially eliminating the Bruins from the conference championship game next month in Las Vegas. There might not be a Pac-12 title next year, or the year after.
USC is on its way to becoming what its administration envisioned when it hired Lincoln Riley. The Trojans could make the College Football Playoff this year. They figure to be regular participants in the coming years, as Riley has adopted what looks to be a sustainable model for team building, his program as competitive in recruiting the country’s high-school talent as it is in attracting the best players in the transfer portal.
The Bruins are less varied in their approach, not necessarily by choice. Their recruiting classes under Kelly have diminished in size every year, increasing the team’s dependence on the transfer portal.
What will UCLA look like next year?
In two years?
The questions created an urgency for the Bruins to maximize this season. They had a fifth-year starter at quarterback in Thompson-Robinson. They had the conference’s leading rusher in Zach Charbonnet, who was also a senior. They had an experienced defense.
Kelly lost a combined 21 games in his first three years at UCLA. He’s 16-7 since.
USC was vulnerable. Though Riley had used to transfer portal to build one of the country’s most explosive offenses, he couldn’t do the same with his defense. Now, the offense also had problems, as starting running back Travis Dye was sidelined by a knee injury.
UCLA’s time to strike was now.
Riley downplayed the rivalry with UCLA in the week leading up to the game, as did his quarterback, Williams.
The nonchalance was reflected in how the Trojans started the game, the Bruins taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Williams had a pass intercepted for only the third time this season, throwing a ball right to linebacker Kain Medrano.
USC kicker Denis Lynch missed two field-goal attempts. Lynch would have missed a third, in the final second of the first half, but Kelly called a timeout before the ball was snapped. Lynch retook the 49-yard kick and made it this time. The Trojans were suddenly down by just a point 21-20.
UCLA converted a field goal of its own on the opening drive of the second half, but the ensuing kickoff by RJ Lopez sailed out of bounds, placing the ball at the 35-yard line. USC capitalized on the error, a 35-yard pass from Williams to Jordan Addison giving the Trojans their first lead at 27-24.
Thompson-Robinson lost a fumble on UCLA’s next possession, and USC again turned the mistake into points, with Austin Jones’ two-yard run extending the Trojans’ advantage to 34-24.
The Bruins spent the rest of the game playing catch-up, their comeback aspirations ending when a pass by Thompson-Robinson was intercepted by USC’s Korey Foreman. It was Thompson-Robinson’s third pick of the game.
“At the quarterback position, you can’t have [four] turnovers and win the game,” Thompson-Robinson said. “It’s just not acceptable.”
UCLA fought back admirably, but the fights will only increase in difficultly. And when the Bruins do it again in the future, they’ll probably have to do it without the kind of leader they had Saturday night.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.