For a few forlorn minutes, it appeared the final image of Dorian Thompson-Robinson in a UCLA uniform would be him walking slowly off the field and into a tunnel, his left arm draped around the shoulder of a trainer.
The injured quarterback was granted a reprieve Friday afternoon when his team picked up a fourth-down stop and drove nearly the length of the field for the go-ahead points against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl. Thompson-Robinson returned to the field, slapping hands with jubilant teammates while a wide smile split his face, the Bruins apparently on the way to an epic comeback victory with just 34 seconds left.
In the end, there was only a dazed expression as Thompson-Robinson made another dejected walk back toward the tunnel, his face capturing the essence of what had just transpired during No. 18 UCLA’s crushing 37-35 loss.
“Tough finish,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said in something of an understatement.
UCLA looked like it might withstand the loss of its quarterback to an apparent lower-back injury, the outcome shifting during the final minutes like it was being whipped around by the gusty winds that overtook the stadium.
Ultimately, it was an old nemesis that doomed the Bruins on a day they gave up 20 unanswered points.
Rushing only three defenders on Pittsburgh’s final offensive series, which the Panthers started at their own 25-yard line with 34 seconds left and no timeouts, the Bruins could not prevent the Panthers from quickly getting into field-goal range.
“That was what the plan was,” Kelly said, “but obviously we didn’t come out on the right side of that.”
Nick Patti, Pittsburgh’s backup quarterback, found holes even with all the extra defensive backs dropping into coverage with the hope of protecting the Bruins’ 35-34 lead. He completed one pass for 18 yards. Another for 17 yards. Finally, not seeing anything to his liking, he tucked the ball in his arm and took off running, gaining 11 more yards to the UCLA 29 with 10 seconds left.
Onto the field ran kicker Ben Sauls, who had made all four of his previous field goals. He added a fifth on the 47-yarder with four seconds left, sprinting in celebration toward the far end zone as his teammates poured into the field.
UCLA backup quarterback Ethan Garbers’ final desperation pass was intercepted, sending the Bruins (9-4) to their third loss in four games as part of a huge downer of a finish to the season. Several Pittsburgh players waved goodbye to their UCLA counterparts who lingered on the field in stunned silence.
The Bruins started the game without star running back Zach Charbonnet, whose absence partially offset the slew of roster holes Pittsburgh (9-4) was forced to plug with its top quarterback and running back out, among others. Kelly said Charbonnet warmed up but “wasn’t 100%,” leading the team to hold him out as a precaution.
For three quarters, it looked like a joyous sendoff for Thompson-Robinson. He talked smack after an 11-yard touchdown pass to Logan Loya, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and made airplane wings with his arms while running downfield to celebrate a 49-yard completion to Titus Mokiao-Atimalala.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Bruins held a 28-21 lead and Thompson-Robinson needed only 14 passing yards to eclipse Cade McNown’s school record of 10,708 yards. But Thompson-Robinson failed to see Pittsburgh linebacker Bengally Kamara, who stepped in front of a pass to notch the Panthers’ third interception. The first had gone off Loya’s hands and the second off tight end Michael Ezeike’s chest at high speed.
“I think the wideout coach will say we’ve got to catch it, the quarterback coach will say we’ve got to put it somewhere else,” Kelly said. “That’s football — sometimes the ball bounces funny ways and you’ve got to make adjustments.”
Thompson-Robinson never returned, cameras later showing him crying on the sideline. A manager held up a towel to give him privacy on a day the Bruins did not bring their injury tent. He finished his final game having completed 16 of 24 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns alongside the three interceptions and one rushing touchdown.
“That’s my boy,” Bruins guard Jon Gaines II said, “so it sucked to see him go down.”
The momentum squarely on its side, Pittsburgh tied the score on Rodney Hammond Jr.’s seven-yard touchdown run with 12:44 left. The Panthers added two field goals to take a 34-28 lead with 4:24 remaining.
It appeared the Bruins were headed for defeat when Kamara hurried Garbers into a fourth-down incompletion, the Panthers taking over at the UCLA 37 with only 2:21 left.
But the Panthers couldn’t pick up a first down and the Bruins gave themselves one more chance thanks to having preserved all three timeouts.
Taking over at its own 30-yard line with 2:01 to go, UCLA scored in just eight plays. Garbers completed two of three passes, including a 14-yarder to Jake Bobo, and freshman T.J. Harden cut outside for an eight-yard touchdown run that gave the Bruins a 35-34 advantage with 34 seconds left.
On the UCLA sideline, a wild celebration erupted, players gleefully flitting about and flapping towels.
“We felt like when we scored there with less than a minute left,” Kelly said, “hopefully we did enough.”
Defensive coordinator Bill McGovern’s return from health problems that had forced him to miss the previous five games was bittersweet, the Bruins unable to get the stop they needed.
There were no silver linings for Thompson-Robinson, a Heisman Trophy contender before his team’s late-season slide cost him the ending he wanted.
“You feel for him,” Kelly said. “He’s just such a warrior, and if he couldn’t go, then you know he gave everything. He’s just done that for five years here.”
His college career complete, no more reprieves to come, there was only one more solitary walk to make.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.