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Five Things: UCLA vs. Fresno State

No. 24 UCLA football lost to No. 22 Fresno State on Saturday after a touchdown pass with 14 seconds remaining gave the Bulldogs the lead, marking the fourth lead change of the latter half of the fourth quarter. (David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)

By Jon Christon

Sept. 20, 2021 2:52 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Fresno State in a sentence.

This post was updated Sept. 23 at 1:36 a.m.

One game removed from arguably its biggest win in the last few years, No. 24 UCLA football (2-1) lost 40-37 in surprising fashion to No. 22 Fresno State. The Bruins led multiple times but couldn’t sustain it, giving up a Bulldog touchdown with 14 seconds left that proved to be the difference. Here are the five main takeaways from UCLA’s fourth straight loss to Fresno State.

Late-game struggles continue

With two double-digit victories to begin their season, it appeared as if the Bruins had turned a corner.

On Saturday, they went right back to square one.

A year after losingfour total games by a combined 15 points, UCLA repeated the tried-and-true formula from 2020 – keeping it close in the final minutes only to lose in the most dramatic way possible.

We saw it in the double-overtime thriller against Stanford to end last season. And in the heartbreaking defeat to USC in the game prior. And in the Oregon loss a few weeks before that.

Time and time again, the Bruins have failed to cut it in the waning moments of a game.

Against Fresno State, UCLA held multiple leads in the latter half of the fourth quarter, starting with a four-point advantage with just over seven minutes left in the game.

After letting the Bulldogs march down the field and score, the Bruins would go on to take yet another lead, this one with 54 seconds left on redshirt junior wide receiver Kyle Philips’ touchdown catch. But just as it has been prone to do in the past, UCLA collapsed, allowing a 75-yard touchdown drive by the Bulldogs in only 40 seconds of play.

That’s unacceptable – plain and simple.

The Bruins talked all offseason about being a mentally tougher team after all the close losses last season.

They definitely didn’t look like it Saturday.

Same old pass defense

(Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor)
UCLA gave up 455 passing yards to Fresno State, the most it has given up in a game since 2019. The Bruins also allowed 10 passing plays of 15 yards or more, including two on the Bulldogs’ game-winning drive. (Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor)

Another worrying trend from last year’s past reared its ugly head against the Bulldogs.

UCLA gave up 455 passing yards to Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener, the most it has allowed from an opposing quarterback since 2019 – the same season it ranked 129th out of 130 teams in the nation in passing yards allowed.

The Bulldogs had their way with the Bruin defense all game, getting anything they wanted through the air. Granted, Haener played the game of his life Saturday – more on that later – but it’s almost as if UCLA was playing a man down defensively, with a Fresno State receiver seemingly wide open every play.

The Bulldogs had 10 passing plays of 15 yards or more, resulting in more than 230 total yards. Six of these plays happened in the fourth quarter, including a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the Bruins’ 19-yard line, as UCLA gave up 226 yards through the air in just the final frame.

Two more of the long pass plays occurred on the Bulldogs’ game-winning drive in the final moments, with back-to-back 26- and 27-yard completions allowing the road team to gain 53 yards in mere seconds, followed by a 13-yard touchdown pass that won it the game.

Go back and watch the last touchdown again and look at the defensive backs. Fifteen yards of cushion against Fresno State’s best receiver when the game-winning touchdown is only 13 yards away?

Talent isn’t the issue. Something is still structurally wrong with UCLA’s secondary, and the Bruins better hope they figure it out sooner rather than later.

UCLA’s kryptonite

(David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)
After running for nearly 500 combined yards between its first two games, UCLA was held to a season-low 117 rushing yards against Fresno State. Redshirt senior running back Brittain Brown was held to just 26 yards on nine carries. (David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)

Fresno State’s defensive game plan was very clear for all to see.

Coach Chip Kelly commented on it after the game. So did senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

But you don’t have to be a coach or a quarterback to know what happened – the Bulldogs went all out stopping the run, and it worked to a tee.

UCLA was held to just 117 yards on the ground, its lowest total of the last two seasons. Junior running back Zach Charbonnet saw only 19 yards on six carries while his backfield partner redshirt senior running back Brittain Brown didn’t fare much better, rushing for 26 yards on nine carries.

Without any production from its backfield, UCLA looked completely lost in the first half. If you thought a 79-yard first quarter was tough to watch, the Bruins followed it up with only two total yards in the second quarter.

Yes, you read that right – the 13th-ranked team in the nation at the time gained all of two yards in an entire quarter. Of UCLA’s eight plays in the quarter, four were rushes for three yards or less. That can’t happen, not on this level and especially not with an offensive-minded head coach in Kelly.

While the team made some adjustments in the second half, such as unleashing Thompson-Robinson more as a runner and letting him sling it down the field more – seven of UCLA’s longest pass plays came in the second half – it wasn’t enough.

The rest of the Pac-12 was surely watching that game, and I would venture to guess that most, if not all, of UCLA’s future opponents will try their hand at the same strategy.

Now it’s up to the Bruins as to whether or not they can be more timely with their adjustments in their upcoming contests.

One Bruin down, another steps up

(Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor)
UCLA senior defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia left Saturday’s game early with a leg injury, but multiple Bruins came off the bench and impacted the statistic sheet in his place. (Sakshi Joglekar/Assistant Photo editor)

Despite the negatives, UCLA had one positive in the game – although it started with a few bad things.

Both senior defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia and redshirt senior defensive back Quentin Lake left the game early with injuries, seemingly rubbing salt in the wounds of an already disappointing day.

But as UCLA’s depth was tested, it responded with multiple players coming off the bench to make instant impacts in the game.

When Lake went down, freshman defensive back Devin Kirkwood stepped in. The first-year defensive back had a career-high four tackles – three of them solo – and made arguably the biggest play of the day for the Bruins, stripping Bulldog wide receiver Josh Kelly at the 38-yard line to allow Charbonnet to give UCLA the lead three plays later.

Another recipient of Lake’s minutes, redshirt junior defensive back Kenny Churchwell III – who did not see any game action in 2020 and played minimally in the first two games of 2021 – made three tackles and picked off Haener for his only turnover of the game.

On the offensive side of the ball, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kam Brown finished as the team’s second-leading receiver, picking up 111 yards and a touchdown after being held off the stat sheet in his first two games in the blue and gold.

The Bruins got torched – there are no ifs, ands or buts about that. However, their depth was still on full display.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to Jake”

(David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener went 39-of-54 passing Saturday, throwing for 455 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter to give his team the lead over UCLA. (David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)

I know, I know. This column is only supposed to be about UCLA.

But what a gutsy and utterly astounding performancefrom Haener.

His 455 yards and two touchdowns, while remarkable in their own right, don’t even tell the whole story. Haener did everything and more, and his performance is already one for the ages. Perhaps Bruin fans can take solace in the fact that they got beat by someone who played a near-perfect game.

The signal-caller not only made plays from the pocket but also extended plays with his feet, giving him more time to methodically pick apart the horrid UCLA pass defense. He did so through a litany of receivers, with nine Bulldogs finishing the game with at least one reception.

And even with the added pressure at the end of the game, Haener never faltered.

Twice faced with the prospect of driving the length of the field to give his team a shot to win the game in the fourth quarter, Haener put his team on his back, expertly leading a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives, the latter of which won Fresno State the game.

To boot, Haener’s game-winning, 40-second masterpiece of a final drive all came with an injured hip from the previous possession. Haener ended up on the ground seemingly every play, but even through his grimaces and limited mobility, he ensured a Bulldog win.

I could go on and on, but I think Chip Kelly put it best.

“That is as good of a performance as I’ve seen a quarterback make in my career.”

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