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UCLA football narrowly falls to Fresno State in first loss of season

Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns in No. 13 UCLA football’s loss to Fresno State on Saturday night. The signal-caller’s final touchdown pass gave the Bruins a late lead, but it wasn’t enough as the Bruins fell 40-37. (David Rimer/Assistant Photo Editor)


Fresno State40
No. 13 UCLA37

By Jon Christon

Sept. 19, 2021 12:02 a.m.

This post was updated Sept. 19 at 1:08 a.m.

Pac-12 After Dark certainly lived up to its billing Saturday night.

With the game ending at 11:30 p.m., No. 13 UCLA football (2-1) lost 40-37 to Fresno State (3-1), giving the Bruins their first loss of the season and their fourth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs. The game featured six lead changes – four of which came in the latter half of the fourth quarter – after the blue and gold entered the matchup with only one lead change in its first two contests.

“Definitely in shock, obviously heartbroken,” said senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. “I’m just really heartbroken for my teammates.”

With Fresno State leading 26-17 at UCLA’s nine-yard-line, junior linebacker Carl Jones Jr. stripped Bulldog quarterback Jake Haener and two plays later, Thompson-Robinson found redshirt junior wide receiver Kyle Philips up the middle for a 42-yard touchdown. 

On Fresno State’s first play of the ensuing drive, freshman defensive back Devin Kirkwood forced another fumble, this one on Bulldog wide receiver Josh Kelly, giving UCLA the ball back on the 18-yard-line.

Junior running back Zach Charbonnet quickly turned the field position into a lead, plunging into the endzone for a three-yard touchdown to give the Bruins a 30-26 advantage after UCLA failed to convert the two-point conversion.

Although Charbonnet had two running touchdowns, the Bruins were held to a season-low 117 rushing yards. Thompson-Robinson said the lack of success on the ground was the result of Fresno State’s defensive game plan.

“They play quarters, that’s a heavy run-stopping defense, and so they loaded the box and gave us some funky looks to kind of get us out of our run game,” Thompson-Robinson said.

After Charbonnet’s score, the Bulldogs proceeded to march right down the field, with Haener capping off a 75-yard drive with a 19-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal to wide receiver Erik Brooks, giving Fresno State the lead once again.

Thompson-Robinson answered back, with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Philips giving the signal-caller 278 yards and three touchdowns on the day. But yet again, Haener returned the favor. 

The former Washington quarterback led the Bulldogs down the field, finding wide receiver Jalen Cropper in the front corner of the endzone for the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left on the clock.

Coach Chip Kelly called Haener’s performance one of a kind.

“That’s as good of a performance I’ve seen a quarterback make in my career,” Kelly said. He put the ball on the money, I don’t think he ever really threw a bad ball …That’s a heck of a competitor and a heck of a football player so you got to tip your hat to him.”

Earlier in the contest, Fresno State rushed out to a 23-10 advantage heading into the break. The Bulldogs’ air attack was on full display in the first half, with 200 of their 276 yards coming from the passing game, but it was three touchdowns on the ground that propelled them to their 13-point lead.

Redshirt senior defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight said the slow start to the first half came down to nerves, but added that the team found its rhythm in the second half.

“​​Pregame jitters – it just took a while for our guys to calm down and get in a flow,” Knight said. “Once we got into a flow, I felt like we moved pretty well.”

The Bruins had just 81 yards of total offense in the opening 30 minutes of play, but they nearly matched that number on their first drive of the second half. A 39-yard touchdown catch by redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kam Brown – just his third career reception with the blue and gold – capped off a 2 1/2-minute, 75-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter.

UCLA’s defense started the second half forcing its second punt of the game, but after the Bruins executed a punt of their own, Bulldogs running back Ronnie Rivers’ 30-yard run put his team back in field goal range, helping extend Fresno State’s lead to nine.

Consecutive turnovers on downs gave UCLA the ball near midfield, and a 45-yard strike down the middle by Thompson-Robinson to senior wide receiver Chase Cota appeared to put the Bruins in the redzone late in the third quarter. However, Cota fumbled the ball on his way to the ground, giving the Bruins their second turnover of the game midway through the third quarter.

From that point on, UCLA would hold Fresno State scoreless for nearly an entire quarter before the Bulldogs scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to win the game.

“We have to make plays when it’s our turn and we didn’t,” Kelly said. “Give Fresno credit because they did make plays. They made more plays than we did and that’s why we ended up in the L column and they ended up in the W column.”

The 40 points allowed by UCLA are the most it has given up all season and the most to a nonconference opponent since Oklahoma in 2019. Haener’s 455 passing yards also were the most by an opposing quarterback since giving up 570 yards to Washington State’s Anthony Gordon in 2019.

Along with being their first defeat of the season, the loss also marked the Bruins’ fifth-straight loss as a ranked team dating back to 2015. 

“Being Bruins means we’re very resilient,” Knight said. “We take a punch in the face, we know how to get back up … Bruins hold their head high through all the adversity. We’re just ready to get back to work and show the country what we’re made of.”


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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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