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Plagued by penalties and turnovers, UCLA takes step backward in 38-14 loss to Fresno State

The buoyant tweet came about 11 hours before kickoff.

“LET’S BE GREAT TODAY,” read the message from UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

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The true freshman led his teammates out of a Rose Bowl tunnel about an hour before their game against Fresno State on Saturday, knowing he would be making a second consecutive start for a team seeking its first victory of the season.

The outcome wouldn’t match the optimism.

A week after appearing to make significant improvement, the Bruins backtracked their way to a 38-14 loss before a fast-emptying stadium that contained more fans in red than blue in the final minutes. There were boos at the end of an abysmal first quarter in which UCLA played little defense, lost a fumble when Thompson-Robinson couldn’t handle a snap, and committed a slew of penalties.

It only got worse as the Bruins fell to 0-3 for the first time since 1971.

Thompson-Robinson had two passes intercepted in the third quarter each leading to a Bulldogs touchdown. The quarterback also absorbed what appeared to be pointed questions from coach Chip Kelly on the sideline after the first interception of his college career.

Kelly said he was just inquiring about Thompson-Robinson’s vantage point.

“I just want to know what he saw through his eyes,” Kelly said, “because it’s easy to second-guess and coach from the sideline and from the stands, but you don’t see it the same way the quarterback sees it, so I was just trying to get from him what he saw and what went into his decision-making process there.”

Thompson-Robinson may have played his way into a quarterback controversy only a week after a breakthrough performance against Oklahoma. Starting once more in place of injured graduate transfer Wilton Speight, Thompson-Robinson completed 10 of 24 passes for 151 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Even one of his completions resulted in a turnover — freshman receiver Chase Cota snagged a 33-yard catch in the fourth quarter but lost the ball after getting pulverized by a safety.

“I come from a background of not losing very much, so this is definitely something new for me and something I have to get used to,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Some of my actions tonight were not up to my standard as a quarterback at all, so I apologize to my team for that.”

The Bruins turned the ball over four times and had trouble sustaining drives, converting only one of 10 third downs. They were outgained in total yardage 420-270. They also committed a season’s worth of penalties with 11 infractions for 96 yards.

“I don’t think we got into any real good rhythm on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said, “and there’s a lot to it.”

UCLA highlights were as fleeting as a Pasadena sunset. Bruins long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker became an unlikely hero in the third quarter when he fell on a fumbled punt to give his team the ball at Fresno State’s 17-yard line. UCLA tailback Bolu Olorunfunmi eventually ran for a two-yard touchdown that pulled the Bruins to within 16-14.

But UCLA’s comeback hopes fizzled later in the quarter when the Bulldogs put together back-to-back touchdown drives, the second coming after a Thompson-Robinson pass that was tipped and intercepted.

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Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, who had gone 0-4 against UCLA coach Chip Kelly earlier in his career, one-upped his counterpart on a surprise two-point conversion in which the Bulldogs lined up four players wide on either side of the field and completed a pass over the middle.

Fresno State (2-1) bookended its dominance with a strong start. The Bulldogs led 16-0 after a couple of lengthy drives they seemed capable of sustaining all the way to Glendale.

The Bruins finally got a spark in the second quarter after linebacker Keisean Lucier-South stripped the ball from Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion and UCLA linebacker Odua Isibor pounced on the fumble. The Bruins capitalized after Thompson-Robinson completed a 45-yard touchdown pass to Howard for their first score.

McMaryion, a transfer from Oregon State who lost to UCLA on this field in 2016, was far more formidable in his return. In addition to rushing for four touchdowns, he completed 22 of 33 passes for 270 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

There wasn’t much to like for Kelly, who matched his record for losses in a college season with nine games remaining. The Bruins have a week off before opening Pac-12 Conference play against Colorado but figure to stay busy making fixes.

UP NEXT: Colorado improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2008 after Travon McMillian ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns in only 15 carries during a 45-14 victory over New Hampshire.

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