UCLA must aim higher than Jimmy Kimmel bowl: Takeaways from win over Colorado

The third time was the charm for UCLA as the Bruins snapped a two-game losing streak to earn bowl eligibility for the first time under Chip Kelly with a 44-20 victory over Colorado on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Here are four takeaways from the game:

It’s good enough. For now.

UCLA can celebrate its first bowl game since 2017. Players, especially seniors who signed up to help rebuild the program, can cherish this moment. But it’s not nearly enough.

The Bruins (6-4, 4-3 Pac-12) trailed Colorado, a team ranked 128th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense, by 10 at halftime. Order was restored in the second half when the UCLA defense held the Buffaloes (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12) scoreless and the offense scored four touchdowns.

But judging from the two-thirds-empty Rose Bowl, fans won’t flock back to a team that cleared such a low bar. At his introductory news conference, Kelly said he wanted his tenure defined by “relationships, friendships and championships.” A trophy at the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl in Kelly’s fourth year wasn’t the type of championship Bruin supporters had in mind.

“You want to get to a foundation, something that you can build up on as a program as a whole and I think a bowl game is definitely that,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said. “But … we got way bigger plans than just some bowl game.”

UCLA has a chance to improve its bowl standing with two more regular season games. Next week’s rivalry matchup at the Coliseum will be critical in rekindling belief behind Kelly before the regular season ends against California at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins have lost two straight to USC and haven’t won at the Coliseum since 2013.

Thompson-Robinson plays well in return

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scores a touchdown against Colorado in the third quarter Saturday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After missing one game because of a thumb injury, Thompson-Robinson eased back into the offense like he never left. He threw for 257 yards on 18-of-27 passing with one interception but stood out most for his rushing ability where he led the Bruins with 99 yards in nine carries. He added one rushing touchdown, a 23-yard scamper that was one of five touchdowns the Bruins scored in the second half.

“I don’t know if I’ve been around a tougher kid than him, what he’s been through so far this year,” Kelly said. “He was critical with his legs today and he was critical throwing the ball, being able to push the ball down the field a little bit.”

The senior quarterback also showed the leadership qualities expected of a three-year full-time starter. After his interception, he tapped his chest as he walked to the sideline to indicate it was his fault. He got on offensive tackle Garrett DiGiorgio when the freshman making his first start was called for a false start in the second quarter. He said he was “pissed” at the first-half performance that included just 10 points and made his feelings known in the locker room.

His team responded with 34 second-half points.

Defense keeps it simple

UCLA linebacker Mitchell Agude celebrates is fumble recovery against Colorado in the fourth quarter.

UCLA linebacker Mitchell Agude celebrates is fumble recovery against Colorado in the fourth quarter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Thompson-Robinson’s halftime message of “do your job” applied to not only the offense, but to the defense, which gave up 242 yards in the first half. The Buffaloes, the Pac-12’s worst offense, were averaging just 266.7 per game.

Reeling from giving up 290 rushing yards to Utah two weeks ago, the Bruins relinquished 155 rushing yards in the first half, then locked down for 38 in the second.

“We felt, in the first half, that we was giving them free points, free yards,” safety Stephan Blaylock said. “So we went in the locker room, just made a few adjustments and just said ‘Let’s come out stronger, faster and play harder.’ Simple as that.”

Highs and lows in the kicking game

Kyle Philips’ 82-yard punt return for a touchdown put the finishing touches on UCLA’s dominant second half, marking the second such special teams score in his career. It’s the first for the senior since scoring on a punt return against Washington State in 2019.

But Nicholas Barr-Mira continued his shaky placekicking by missing a 47-yard field goal attempt and extra point. The miscues didn’t cost the Bruins in the blowout win, but they’re a caution flag for a player who earlier this season won Pac-12 special teams player of the week. He has missed at least one field goal in four straight games and is now 12 for 18 on field goals this year.

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