After UCLA won every nonconference game, it was dismissed as having persevered through a soft schedule.
After UCLA beat winless Colorado, the college football world continued to shrug.
After UCLA toppled nationally ranked Washington, some buzz finally started to build.
On Saturday afternoon, a new narrative might have formed: Maybe there’s no better team in the Pac-12 Conference.
Having gone from disregarded to dominant, the No. 18 Bruins knocked off the defending conference champions in convincing fashion, their 42-32 victory over No. 11 Utah at the Rose Bowl not fully reflected in the final score.
On the day he became UCLA’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s final throw was intercepted and returned for a Utes touchdown.
This was all Bruins.
Their offense was so dominant from late in the first quarter onward that it almost seemed a surprise when it didn’t score. Their defense forced two turnovers and got the stops it needed. Their special teams produced two kickoff returns that almost went for touchdowns.
It added up to the biggest victory of the Chip Kelly era, just eight days after the same thing could have been said. Kelly was so cheery afterward that he accommodated the media for extra questions after a spokesman tried to end the interview session.
Who could blame him when every topic was upbeat?
What might have qualified as UCLA’s best performance followed what Kelly called its best week of practice.
“I told them, ‘If you fall in love with the process, the process will love you back,’ ” Kelly said of his message to his players. “And that’s what was on display.”
The Bruins (6-0 overall, 3-0 Pac-12) are now bowl-eligible but covet greater success than the top-10 ranking that one reporter suggested might be coming their way after their best start since winning their first eight games in 2005.
“We want more,” said Thompson-Robinson, who remained fiery in his postgame comments for a second consecutive week. “You said top 10. I want top five. Want top two. We want it all.”
UCLA’s nine-game winning streak going back to last season is their longest since they won a school-record 20 in a row over the 1997 and 1998 seasons. The Bruins also put an end to a five-game losing streak against the Utes (4-2, 2-1), beating them for the first time since 2015.
Utah had no answers for an offense that scored 35 points over the final three quarters thanks to the dual dominance of Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet.
In another nearly flawless performance that could launch him into Heisman Trophy consideration, Thompson-Robinson completed 18 of 23 passes for 299 yards and four touchdowns. Thompson-Robinson’s final touchdown throw, a short pass to Logan Loya that went for 70 yards after Loya turned on the afterburners, gave him 76 touchdowns for his career to top the record of 75 that Brett Hundley had compiled from 2012 to 2014.
“It’s great to have my name there,” Thompson-Robinson said before tears began to well in his eyes, his voice catching, “but I think the thing, the one that’s made me most emotional from right now, is seeing how happy my guys in my locker room were for me, the coaching staff, everybody that’s been here since I was a freshman, just rethinking all the hard times that I went through, all the bickering back and forth, all the transitioning going on throughout the program, again, I just can’t say how thankful I am and how grateful I am to be on this team right now.”
Charbonnet added a career-high 198 yards rushing and a touchdown in 22 carries, benefiting from sturdy blocking and his own shifty moves after breaking into the open field. Wide receiver Jake Bobo caught two touchdown passes, including one that he snagged just before planting a foot in the back of the end zone.
“Dorian dropped it in a bucket,” Bobo said, “where only I could get it.”
UCLA’s defense overcame the loss of safety Stephan Blaylock in the first quarter on a bizarre targeting penalty after Bruins linebacker Darius Muasau intercepted a pass, ending a Utah drive when the game looked as if it might be a defensive battle.
Craving another highlight, Muasau ended Utah’s final hopes of a comeback early in the fourth quarter when he stuck his helmet into quarterback Cam Rising’s midsection to force a fumble. Bruins cornerback Jaylin Davies picked up the ball and raced 37 yards to the Utah one-yard line, setting up a Charbonnet touchdown on the next play that increased UCLA’s lead to 42-25.
From there, the Bruins could have been forgiven for looking ahead to their next big game, at Oregon in two weeks.
Those objects that were behind UCLA in the rearview mirror not so long ago are no longer there.
For those who haven’t noticed, the Bruins appear to have fully turned the corner under Kelly.
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.