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UCLA finds its clutch gene: Four takeaways from victory over No. 15 Washington

They are the plays that separate good teams from ones that have a way to go.

They’re also ones that UCLA struggled to make in recent seasons.

Remember the big kickoff return, followed by the big pass play, the Bruins yielded in the final minute against USC in 2020? Or the late stop they failed to generate in the final seconds against Fresno State in 2021?

Now, making those plays are becoming routine. A victory over South Alabama ended with UCLA stuffing a fake field-goal play before driving for its own field goal to win the game.

On Friday night at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins erased any last-minute drama by converting two third downs on the final drive of their 40-32 victory over No. 15 Washington.

Here are four takeaways from the game that moved UCLA (5-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) into a tie with USC atop the Pac-12 standings:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was clearly miffed by media reports that had dismissed his team despite its unbeaten start before the Washington game. After throwing for three touchdowns and running for another score Friday, he retweeted a blurb from USA Today asking, “Have you ever seen a less impressive 4-0 team?”

“I do read it,” Thompson-Robinson said of what’s being written. “I get notifications just like everybody else does. And if you think words don’t hurt, they do. They do and I always remember even if I don’t say nothing. So we have a lot of things ahead of us. Right now, we’re focused on Utah.”

The narrative had changed by late Friday, Thompson-Robinson winning widespread admiration on social media. Among those offering compliments was Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who tweeted, “UCLA QB is tuff!”

“Appreciate it!” replied Thompson-Robinson, who completed 24 of 33 passes for 315 yards while upstaging Washington counterpart Michael Penix Jr.

Pulling rank

Widely disregarded after four wins against lesser competition, the Bruins grabbed plenty of attention with the nationally televised victory over the Huskies.

Does UCLA deserve to be ranked?

Said safety Stephan Blaylock, who had one of his team’s two interceptions: “I believe so, but we’ll leave that up to” poll voters.

Said Thompson-Robinson: “We’ll let y’all decide that.”

It’s a safe bet to say the Bruins will move into the national rankings for the first time since last October, when a loss to Arizona State knocked them out for the rest of the 2021 season.

The bigger question is whether they can stay ranked with showdowns against No. 12 Utah and No. 13 Oregon looming.

The flip side

Given the opponent, UCLA’s defense turned in one of its finest performances of the Chip Kelly era.

The start had a familiar feel when the Huskies drove for a touchdown on their opening drive, but the Bruins stiffened considerably while their offense rolled off 24 consecutive points starting midway through the second quarter.

UCLA became the first team this season to sack Penix — doing so twice — and also intercepted two of his passes. Much of Penix’s 345 passing yardage was generated in desperation mode with the Bruins comfortably ahead.

Consider it the first sign that UCLA’s defense really is new and improved under first-year coordinator Bill McGovern.

A hot ticket?

UCLA may no longer play at the Tarp Bowl starting next weekend.

Capacity has been reduced to 53,390 at the Rose Bowl with the giant blue tarps covering the tops of both end zones, but at least one set of tarps might come off next weekend. The Bruins will face Utah, the defending Pac-12 champion and a team with a fan base that likes to leave large swaths of opposing stadiums awash in red.

More important, the Bruins are building the sort of excitement the team hasn’t enjoyed since beating Louisiana State early last season. The crowd of 41,343 for UCLA’s game against Washington was a season high and impressive given it was played on a Friday night.

Expect more fans and fewer tarps for the Utes.

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