No matter what sort of flattery was lavished upon UCLA, breathless talk of contending for the College Football Playoff accompanied by musings about coach Chip Kelly having regained his visor-inspired mojo, the message never changed inside the Wasserman Football Center.
A number and a word continually flashed on television screens inside the Bruins’ practice facility during their two weeks of preparation for Fresno State, as if to remind players of the netherworld they had only recently inhabited.
The number was “15,” a reference to the combined points in the team’s four losses last season. The word was “finish,” alluding to collapses in the final minutes against USC and Stanford.
On Saturday night, after having seemingly emerged from that world of pain with two season-opening victories, UCLA sunk back into the familiar misery.
It lost by three points. It couldn’t finish.
As 11-point favorites playing at home with a senior-heavy team and extra rest, the No. 13 Bruins ended only the earsplitting buzz about their resurgence during a 40-37 loss to the Bulldogs.
UCLA fans departed the Rose Bowl with some misgivings about their team and its coach that have reappeared like warts since Kelly’s arrival. The defense sparked a comeback by forcing two fumbles but gave up 569 yards after its secondary surrendered huge cushions of yardage like it was hosting a real-estate giveaway.
Kelly’s game management was questioned. The coach gave star running back Zach Charbonnet only six carries (two leading to touchdowns) and went for a controversial two-point conversion midway through the fourth quarter that failed.
Critical mistakes also piled up. The Bruins twice were drawn offsides on Fresno State punts, extending Bulldogs drives. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson fumbled on a play in which he wasn’t touched, the ball slipping out of his hand while he cocked his arm back to throw.
“They made a lot of plays tonight,” Kelly said of the Bulldogs, “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.”
Even with all those issues conspiring against them, the Bruins (2-1) should have won. They held a 37-33 lead with 54 seconds left after Thompson-Robinson completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Philips.
All UCLA had to do to, 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 25-yard line.
“You look at it, 75 yards,” Kelly said, “it’s a tough task.”
UCLA couldn’t make it tough enough for Jake Haener.
The Fresno State quarterback, visibly hobbled on the final drive by a hip injury, accounted for all 75 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Cropper in the front corner of the end zone with 14 seconds left that was essentially a repeat of another touchdown pass only minutes earlier.
“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.”
Thompson-Robinson had appeared to put himself in position for the postgame praise after rebounding from a rough start to throw three touchdown passes in the second half. He lingered on the field after his final pass was knocked down short of the goal line, as if he didn’t know where to go or what to do.
“Definitely in shock,” Thompson-Robinson said after throwing for 235 of his 278 yards in the second half. “Obviously heartbroken.”
Other emotions were probably percolating after Fresno State celebrated its fourth consecutive victory over the Bruins with a trolling tweet. It showed Haener eyeing an “L” in the Hollywood sign with the caption, “See ya next time, LOSS Angeles.”
The No. 22 Bulldogs overtook the No. 24 Bruins in the Associated Press rankings on Sunday while making fans ponder where the Mountain West Conference darlings might finish in the Pac-12 South Division.
In the UCLA locker room after the game, there was talk of not letting this loss define the Bruins, that all their goals remained intact with Pac-12 play starting next week against Stanford. Adjustments will be necessary against Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee given his strong showings in victories over USC and Vanderbilt.
“Being Bruins means we’re very resilient,” defensive back Qwuantrezz 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 changing the messaging around UCLA football for two giddy weeks, what the Bruins revealed Saturday was more of the same.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.