‘He’s a tough kid, he’ll play.’ Utah expects to face UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson


UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is brought down for a loss by Oregon safety Vernon McKinley III in the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In keeping with the theme of its wildly wavering season, UCLA was confronted with only end-of-the-spectrum possibilities heading into its most pivotal game of 2021.

As part of the best-case scenario, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, one of the most experienced quarterbacks in college football, would be able to push through the apparent throwing-hand injury he suffered last week to start against Utah.

The other option would be to go with Ethan Garbers, a promising newbie who has thrown all of seven passes since bidding farewell to high school stardom.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham seemed unequivocal about which way it would go Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, even if he was not privy to the Bruins’ medical reports.

“He’s a tough kid, he’ll play,” Whittingham told reporters earlier this week of Thompson-Robinson. “He’ll be there; I’ll be shocked if he’s not there.”

Whittingham made those comments on a day Thompson-Robinson didn’t throw one pass during the portion of UCLA’s practice open to reporters. The senior quarterback subsequently made some significant progress in his recovery, throwing one pass Tuesday during the media viewing session before firing several 20-yard passes and a few others from around 30 yards Wednesday.

Even so, his bid to start every game in a season for the first time in his career remained in jeopardy. Lingering discomfort was evident in the way Thompson-Robinson clutched the ball with his off hand whenever he could. He also didn’t take snaps from the first- or second-string centers at the last portion of practice open to reporters, signaling Garbers and fellow backup Chase Artopoeus would get those repetitions in team drills once the media left the practice field.

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Further thinning the Bruins’ quarterback depth, third-stringer Chase Griffin also appears to be recovering from an injury after not dressing for the game against Oregon last weekend. Griffin did not throw any passes this week during the open portions of practice.

Whoever starts at quarterback, a front-line, top-shelf effort will be needed for the Bruins (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) against the Utes (4-3, 3-1) to prevent UCLA’s hopes of winning the conference from being reduced to a Hail Mary. A victory over Utah would make the Bruins bowl-eligible while moving them into — at worst — second place in the Pac-12 South with a handy tiebreaker against the Utes.

Of the top three teams in the division standings, UCLA has by far the easiest schedule after this weekend, with games remaining against offense-starved Colorado, staggering USC and two-win California. Utah’s remaining schedule includes a game against seventh-ranked Oregon and fellow division leader Arizona State (5-2, 3-1) must face Oregon State on the road.

UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin during a game against Arizona on Sept. 28, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Utah is coming off a 42-34 loss to Oregon State in which it gave up 260 rushing yards, providing a blueprint for the Bruins regardless of who’s their quarterback. It won’t help the Utes that top linebacker Devin Lloyd must sit out the first half against UCLA after being called for targeting in the third quarter last weekend.

UCLA rushed for a season-low 110 yards during its 34-31 setback against Oregon and undoubtedly will seek to get running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown back into a better rhythm against the Utes. Even with the clunker against the Ducks, the Bruins’ rushing offense that has generated 206.1 yards per game ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 28 nationally.

The game figures to be emotionally charged. Utah will retire the No. 22 as a tribute to the late Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe during a ceremony between the first and second quarters. Jordan died last Christmas of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound and Lowe, who changed from No. 2 to No. 22 to honor his one-time high school and college teammate, was fatally shot outside a house party late last month.

It will be the first number retired in the program’s history.

If Garbers gets the start, it could put the Bruins in a historically precarious place; a UCLA backup quarterback has not won his first start since Richard Brehaut helped the Bruins defeat Washington State on Oct. 2, 2010. Mike Fafaul (2016), Thompson-Robinson (2018), Austin Burton (2019) and Griffin (2020) all lost their first starts as replacements.

Kelly said he would not have to alter his game plan if Garbers, a redshirt freshman, took the first snap.

“Ethan can run our whole offense and we grasp the whole thing that Ethan can do and Ethan and Dorian are very similar,” Kelly said of the quarterback who helped his team convert a fourth down against Oregon before his final pass was intercepted.

Kelly said Garbers’ running ability matched that of Thompson-Robinson, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks on the West Coast, noting that Garbers’ older brother, Chase, was the all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks at California.

“Garbers are good athletes,” Kelly said, “so don’t underestimate them.”

Then, facing a reporter who had suggested Ethan Garbers wasn’t as good at running the ball as his veteran counterpart on the team, Kelly added, facetiously, “Sleep on him; he’s not a good rusher.”

The Bruins could find out soon enough.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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