Plaschke: Is this a fork in the road — or the end of it — for the UCLA football bandwagon?

·6 min read
PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 18, 2021: UCLA Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) reaches out to fans as he heads to the locker room after a disappointing loss to Fresno State 40-37 at the Rose Bowl on September 18, 2021 in Pasadena, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) reaches out to fans as he heads to the locker room after a disappointing loss to Fresno State. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Sputter. Swerve. Crash.

Less than a month after racing to unrecognizable speeds on the fuel of two impressive victories, the UCLA football bandwagon has careened into a ditch, run off the road by some raging dudes from Fresno.

The screech was deafening. The shine was stripped. The wreckage was spectacular, powder blue turning a deep red just before midnight Saturday as the Rose Bowl was filled with the chants of strangers.

“Fresno State! Fresno State!”

In the end, that is how it sounded, this first Bruins loss, this stealing of Bruins magic, set to a chorus of dancing witnesses simply repeating the first words in a final score.

Fresno State 40, UCLA 37.

“It was stunning,” defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight said.

Stunning, to some. Same old break-your-heart-Bruins, to others.

The Bruins were 11-point favorites against the Mountain West Bulldogs yet were grossly outgained, largely outplayed and generally outclassed.

The Bruins were playing their first game as a ranked team in four years — they were 13th — yet their defense allowed 569 yards, their offense was outgained by 174 yards, and they trailed by two possessions for nearly all but the final eight minutes.

The Bruins had captured much long-awaited local buzz after winning two games worthy of the bandwagon created in this space, yet after the first few Fresno sideswipes, that bandwagon lost control.

It’s still salvageable, they have yet to start conference play, and they still have the talent to be among the class of the Pac-12.

But, goodness, right now, it’s a smoking mess.

“We didn’t really think we were going to lose,” Knight said.

Even in the final minute, it appeared they weren’t going to lose, a stirring fourth-quarter comeback having given them a 37-33 lead with 54 seconds remaining.

But that lousy defense was bad one more time, and Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener was tremendous one more time, marching the Bulldogs down the field for a 75-yard drive that ended with Haener finding Jalen Cropper alone in the front corner of the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds left.

The final gasping UCLA response ended in a Dorian Thompson-Robinson pass fluttering harmlessly to the ground as the dancing Bulldogs charged off their bench and rushed to the stands to party with their thousands of fans above the south end zone.

Meanwhile, thousands of Bruins fans sat frozen in the cool night air, holding their heads in their hands as their team made its familiar losing trudge into the tunnel.

“Did that just happen?” said one shivering soul.

Moments earlier the Rose Bowl had rocked with that Bruins comeback that included two touchdowns in less than one minute.

Just as suddenly, it was filled with Bulldog hoots, howls and taunting chants.

“Definitely in shock,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Obviously heartbroken.”

The Bruin quarterback had rebounded from an awful first three quarters to throw three touchdown passes in the fourth, the final one a 15-yarder to Kyle Philips with 54 seconds remaining that seemingly gave UCLA the victory. After that pass, he twirled through the grass like a ballerina, running as if floating.

Soon enough, though, he was grounded, soberly trying to make sense of an overall effort that was far from good enough.

“This one doesn’t define us, it’s not going to help us or hurt us in the Pac-12 play and … our main goal, which is Pac-12 Championship in the Rose Bowl,” he said.

It may not define them, but it should worry them. They had a bye week to prepare, but they didn’t seem prepared. They have a great running game, but their 227-yard average was cut in half. They have a revived defense, but Haener threw for 455 yards.

Most worrisome of all, they were backed by a rush of optimism from their long-suffering fans, and the Rose Bowl crowd of 50,698 was mostly Bruin faithful, yet they initially played with all the emotion of a spring game.

“If it was momentum," said coach Chip Kelly, "then we would have won this game tonight, so it’s not momentum, it’s about going to work on Monday and having a really good week of preparation … and not letting this game define us just like we shouldn’t have let the first two games define us.”

But those first two wins over Hawaii and Louisiana State did define them as one of the surprising powers in the country. And so it was just as surprising to see them take the field as the same old UCLA.

In a game that started at 7:55 p.m., the Bruins ran out amid darkness decorated in fireworks. Yet the fireworks initially fizzled and only the darkness remained.

Yeah, in the first half, right from the start, it was bad.

The Bulldogs beat the Bruins on a third-and-24 play. They beat the Bruins on fourth-and-four play. They drew the Bruins offside on a fake punt. They harassed Thompson-Robinson into a harried pass without the ball, which flew backward out of his hand for a fumble that led to three points. He also missed a pass to a wide-open Brittain Brown that potentially cost them a touchdown.

At halftime it was 23-10, Fresno led in yardage 276-81, and the game almost felt over.

“Pregame jitters,” Knight said. “It just took a while for our guys to calm down and get into a flow.”

However, they remained out of that flow throughout the third quarter and into the fourth quarter.

They lost another fumble, this one by Chase Cota deep in Bulldog territory. They were fooled into another fourth-down offside. And on their own fourth-down pass, they were stopped when Thompson-Robinson inexplicably ran outside on a quarterback sneak and was smothered. Then, in the fourth quarter, Thompson-Robinson overthrew Greg Dulcich as the tight end streaked open down the middle for what would have been a sure touchdown.

It soon became obvious that Fresno State was loading up the box to stop the Bruins’ rushing attack — Zach Charbonnet, so lethal against LSU, gained just 19 yards — and force Thompson-Robinson to beat them.

And until the final minutes, Thompson-Robinson couldn’t beat them. Of course, neither could any of the other Bruins who consistently missed tackles, blew coverages or just made silly mistakes.

“We have to make plays when it’s our turn and we didn’t,” Kelly said.

This year was supposed to be their turn. And it still can be, if Thompson-Robinson somehow evolves into a consistent game-changer and the defensive backs can get their scripts straight.

The bandwagon wasn’t totaled.

But on just the third lap of its journey, it has already been run off the road.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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