No. 13 UCLA stunned by Jake Haener and Fresno State in 40-37 loss

·6 min read
PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 18, 2021:Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener (9) looks to throw.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener passes during the Bulldogs' 40-37 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson lingered on the field after his final pass was knocked down, as if he didn’t know where to go or what to do.

His team had sputtered and whirred to life only to conk out in spectacular fashion. The Bruins’ run into national prominence had slammed headfirst into a red-and-white wall on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, likely sending them back into the college football shadows.

“Definitely in shock,” Thompson-Robinson would later say when asked how he felt after No. 13 UCLA’s 40-37 loss to Fresno State. “Obviously heartbroken.”

There was a slow start and a furious comeback. A Bruins defense that couldn’t make a stop forced two fumbles in a span of 1½ minutes midway through the fourth quarter, reviving a breathless crowd of 50,698.

Some early stumbles gave way to late heroics for Thompson-Robinson, whose 15-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Philips with 54 seconds remaining gave the Bruins a 37-33 lead and left them on the brink of completing nonconference play unbeaten.

All UCLA (2-1) had to do to get there, after the clock failed to budge on the kickoff, was hold Fresno State (3-1) out of the end zone after the Bulldogs took over at their own 25-yard line.

“You look at it, 75 yards,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said, “it’s a tough task.”

UCLA couldn’t make it tough enough for Jake Haener.

The Fresno State quarterback, who capably countered every move the Bruins’ defense made, completed five of six passes on his final drive while eluding constant pressure. Haener accounted for all 75 yards his team needed, including a 13-yard touchdown to Jalen Cropper in the front corner of the end zone with 14 seconds left that sent Bulldogs fans into spasms of delight.

“We blitzed him, we played cover zero, we rushed three and dropped everything into coverage,” said Kelly, who called Haener’s performance that included 455 passing yards and two touchdowns as good as he had seen a quarterback make in his coaching career. “I think we threw the whole kitchen sink at that young man and he handled everything.”

UCLA’s chance for a miracle finish died after Thompson-Robinson completed one pass to reach the Bruins’ 39-yard line. He hovered in the backfield on the game’s last play, searching for an opening in the defense, before heaving a pass that was batted down short of the goal line.

Thompson-Robinson’s 278 yards passing and three touchdowns weren’t enough on a night the Bulldogs dared the quarterback to beat him by centering their defensive game plan on UCLA’s run game. Fresno State held running backs Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet to a combined 42 yards rushing and 2.8 yards per carry.

Fresno State celebrates their 40-37 win after a UCLA Hail Mary pass in the final seconds fails to connect.
Fresno State celebrates their 40-37 win after a UCLA Hail Mary pass in the final seconds fails to connect. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“They loaded the box and gave us some funky looks to kind of get us out of our run game,” said Thompson-Robinson, who was UCLA’s leading rusher with 67 yards on 13 carries.

Everything about the game seemed a little kooky.

Kelly had joked earlier this week that it would be staged in prime time in the Philippines even though it came with a bedtime start on the West Coast.

The way UCLA played for the first 3½ quarters, the Bruins might have wished it started while everyone was asleep.

The Bruins were dominated across the board, in no way resembling the team that had won its first two games in convincing fashion to move into the national rankings for the first time in four years.

They couldn’t run the ball, failed to hit open receivers and were twice drawn offsides on punts, leading to Fresno State first downs. Thompson-Robinson also fumbled on a play in which he wasn’t even hit, the ball slipping out of his hand while he cocked his arm back to throw.

“They made a lot of plays tonight,” Kelly said, “but we gave them some plays too and those are things we have to correct if we’re going to end up in the ‘W’ column.”

UCLA looked like it might get there in improbable fashion, swinging the momentum back in its favor with two fumble recoveries.

With Fresno State trying to preserve a 26-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter, UCLA freshman cornerback Devin Kirkwood was one of three defenders who swarmed the Bulldogs’ Josh Kelly after he caught a pass. Kirkwood knocked the ball out and Bruins linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath recovered at Fresno State’s 18-yard line.

Three plays later, Charbonnet powered across the goal line for a three-yard touchdown run that gave his team a 30-26 advantage. UCLA couldn’t add to the lead when its two-point conversion failed.

Bruins linebacker Carl Jones had sparked the comeback 1½ minutes earlier when he ripped the ball out of Haener’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by fellow linebacker Myles Jackson.

Thompson-Robinson converted the opportunity, connecting with Philips in the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown that drew the Bruins to within 26-24 with eight minutes to play.

Fresno State’s emphasis on stopping the run provided some one-on-one matchups that Philips won while catching seven passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. UCLA receiver Kam Brown provided a nice complement with five catches for 111 yards and a touchdown.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, their secondary was also blistered. Defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight ascribed some of UCLA’s struggles to pregame jitters. By halftime, Haener had completed more passes (21) than the Bruins had run offensive plays (16). The Bulldogs held a 23-10 lead by then, allowing them to charge into the locker room like conquering heroes before pockets of fans who showered them with applause.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson eludes a tackle attempt by Fresno State linebacker Tyson Maeva.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson eludes a tackle attempt by Fresno State linebacker Tyson Maeva in the second half Saturday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A similar scene unfolded after the game, Fresno State players flooding the field in celebration of their fourth consecutive victory over the Bruins while Thompson-Robinson milled about in anguish. A few UCLA teammates approached with words of comfort that could provide little solace.

In the locker room, there was talk of not letting this loss define the Bruins, that all their goals remained intact with Pac-12 Conference play starting next week against Stanford.

“Being Bruins means we're very resilient,” Knight said. “We take a punch in the face, we know how to get back up. That was the main thing I was telling the guys inside the locker room. … We're just ready to get back to work and show the country what we are made of.”

After momentarily appearing ready for prime time, what UCLA revealed Saturday wasn’t nearly as flattering.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting