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PULLMAN, Wash. — It’s true. This actually happened late Saturday night up here in the Pacific Northwest:
A UCLA Bruins football team coached by Chip Kelly fell behind by 32 points in the middle of the third quarter against a Washington State team coached by Mike Leach.
And then they did this.
UCLA. Won. The. Game.
Final score: 67-63.
The previously winless Bruins scored 50 points in the final 19 minutes, stunning the sold-out crowd at Martin Stadium with a comeback for the ages against a 19th-ranked Cougars team that suddenly seemed to panic.
“To play a team like this, and, I mean, heck they scored 63,” Kelly said, searching for the right words.
Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed 25 of 38 passes for 507 yards and five touchdown passes to lead the Bruins (1-3). He also rushed for another two and even admitted to shedding tears at the end.
After all, this was a team that was down by a score of 49-17 with the clock ticking down to the final four minutes of the third quarter. But maybe that’s just what they needed.
“There’s nothing to lose when you’re down that much,” Thompson-Robinson said afterward.
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The epic win for UCLA helps cool the recent talk about Kelly’s job security after he lost nine of his first 12 games at UCLA since his hiring at nearly $5 million per year in late 2017.
It also had Leach searching for ways to stop his team from melting down further before it resumes play at Utah next Saturday. He promised a tough week of practice before then.
“We collapsed in every phase of the game: offense, defense and special teams,” Leach said. “Every phase.”
His defensive players, he said, “don’t tackle.” His ball carriers, he said, have “horrible ball security.”
“Second half, as a team, we went out there loose and soft, loose and soft, and then gave them a little momentum and let them back in it,” Leach said afterward.
By contrast, UCLA pulled this off with big plays, 29 points off turnovers and a huge burst of scoring in a short amount of time. After the Cougars took a 49-17 lead, the Bruins peeled off 29 unanswered points in a span of less than five minutes, including a 94-yard touchdown pass from Thompson-Robinson to receiver Demetric Felton.
By the time the flurry was over, WSU’s lead was down to 49-46. And there was still 14:28 left in the game.
This was where Kelly said his team’s non-conference schedule helped it finish the game despite losing all three of those previous games against Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma. UCLA scored a combined 42 points in those three games, eight less than they scored in the final 19 minutes here amid the rolling wheat fields of southeastern Washington.
“I always thought we were a good football team if we can be consistent,” Kelly said. “I’ll tell you what helped us is our schedule helped us because we played 12 full quarters coming into this game, and some other people don’t play 12 quarters in their first three games. When you’ve got to play four full quarters, if you’re battle tested like our guys are, I think that showed up today.”
The Cougars (3-1) still looked like they would win after a fourth-down pass from Thompson-Robinson fell incomplete to Felton with a little under three minutes left. They held a 63-60 lead and got the ball back at their own 17-yard line but wasted the possession with a false-start penalty and a fumble by receiver Easop Winston. It was one of two lost fumbles by the Cougars in the final three minutes and one of four lost fumbles in the second half.
In this case, UCLA linebacker Josh Woods recovered the ball at the WSU 26, setting up a short field for Thompson-Robinson, who then connected with Felton on third down for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 1:07 left to help put the Bruins up 67-63. It turned out to be the game-winner.
“That felt crazy,” Felton said.
WSU had one more shot after that, but Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon got sacked for a 10-yard loss on the next play and fumbled the ball back to UCLA. Game over.
“We talk to them about eliminating distractions and staying in the moment and they did it,” Kelly said.
Big plays on special teams added to the misery for WSU. In the first half, Felton raced 100 yards on a kickoff return for a touchdown. In the second half, UCLA’s Kyle Phillips gave the Bruins their first lead after halftime when he returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown, helping put the Bruins up 60-56 with 7:31 left.
All of these big moments overshadowed what otherwise was a stellar night from Cougars senior quarterback Anthony Gordon, the nation’s leading passer. He set a school record with nine touchdown passes and completed 41 of 61 throws for 570 yards. He was intercepted twice. Five of his nine touchdown passes came before halftime, when the Cougars led 35-17.
“If we play like we did in the first half, there isn’t anybody that can beat us,” Leach said. “If we play like we did in the second half, anybody can beat us. It’s about as simple as that.”
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