Last September, the Bowling Green Falcons stormed into Minneapolis and shocked the world. By means of a relentless defense, they overcame status as 31-point underdogs to shock Minnesota on the road in a program-altering win.
Bowling Green aimed for a sequel upset to commence its 2022 season. Surrounded by the scenic backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains in the historic Rose Bowl, the Falcons opened their new year with a test against a UCLA team fresh off an 8-4 campaign. While Bowling Green showed initial signs of pulling off another non-conference upset, UCLA ultimately emerged triumphant in 45-17 fashion with 38 unanswered to close the game.
“The guys played extremely hard. Obviously on defense they played their hearts out,” Bowling Green head coach Scot Loeffler said. “They were in a tough situation considering we didn’t play complimentary football in terms of having a ton of three and outs on offense. We couldn’t run the ball or protect the passer. We need to get that fixed because we have enough guys at skill positions, and we need to get them the ball.”
Roughly one minute into the contest, Bowling Green came out with its own fire in the 100+ degree Los Angeles heat.
After forcing an immediate three-and-out, the Falcons’ punt rush proved too much for UCLA to handle. PaSean Wimberly flew into the backfield with a full head of steam and trucked the punter before he could even release the ball. Ultimately ruled a blocked punt, Charles Rosser scooped up the loose pigskin on the 11-yard line and trotted into the end zone uncontested.
“I thought our special teams did some really good things,” Loeffler said. “We said that we wanted to block a punt and we ended up getting the opportunity. I thought that was an excellent play by our special teams.”
UCLA’s response was rather immediate. Fifth-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson accounted for the Bruins’ first score of the season by escaping pressure in the backfield, finding daylight on the right sideline, and finally, cutting all the way across the field to the left corner pylon on a 68-yard scamper. Through 160 seconds of clock time, 14 points were accumulated by the teams in their first-ever matchup.
“We have a lot of third, fourth, and fifth years guys that have been in this program, they know how to be college athletes, they know how to be football players, when stuff gets hard they are not going to tanks and everything,” Thompson-Robinson said on UCLA’s quick response. “I couldn’t be more proud of my team for that, just the maturity level out there on the field.”
Even after the early chaos quelled, Bowling Green’s defense and special teams made quite an imprint in the first quarter. Falcons’ middle linebacker DJ Taylor (who had a career-high eight tackles) picked off a pass in zone coverage and returned it 24 yards to stall a Bruin drive. After the offense failed to cash in, UCLA muffed the ensuing punt on the 11-yard line, providing Bowling Green a chip shot field goal for a 10-7 advantage.
The Falcons eventually built on its first quarter success in the second stanza when Matt McDonald evaded a quick blitz and lobbed the ball to reigning First Team All-MAC tight end Christian Sims, who ran in for a 22-yard touchdown. But the 17-7 double-digit advantage attained on that play was short-lived at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA roared back with 17 unanswered points in a span that covered six minutes and 10 seconds. Thompson-Robinson was an artist with his mobility all afternoon and escaped pass rush after pass rush, typically finding his targets on screen passes after dodging defenders. His first touchdown pass was a tunnel screen to Kazmeir Allen for a 20-yard score. Then, he found running back Keegan Jones in the flat who sprinted 52 yards down the left sideline to hand the Bruins their first lead at 24-17 — which served as the halftime score.
“I can’t stop thinking about the pick, I’m going to be super, super critical about that, making sure to clean up those mistakes, especially a lot of the stuff that happened in the first quarter, but I think I still brought a really good day,” Thompson-Robinson said. “I try to get the ball out of my hands as fast as possible, not try to take as many sacks, try to get this o-line to cool down a little bit. I think it was a really good day for the team overall.”
Play slowed to a crawl in the third quarter, as injuries and cramping transpired on an overwhelming amount of plays, and the scorching conditions in triple-digit temperatures certainly didn’t help keep the players fresh.
“It was definitely hot and it definitely played a factor in the game, but it was hot for them also so you just have to overcome,” Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald said. “Second half, guys were dropping like flies cramping and whatnot. So we need to do a better job of preparing.”
Additionally, Bowling Green’s havoc fundamentals exhibited in the first half subsided for the latter part of the contest. In the opening frame alone, they blocked a punt, intercepted a pass, broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage, and recovered a muffed punt. In the second half, momentum-generating defensive plays shifted in the Bruins’ favor. Benefiting from routinely excellent field position, UCLA moved the ball methodically with heavy involvement of running back Zach Charbonnet. The star junior tailback racked up 121 yards and a touchdown in the victory.
“When we needed a play and we were down, it was Dorian’s long touchdown and then Zach really kind of sparked us,” UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said. “Those two veteran leaders on the offensive side of the ball, helped us get out of that hole, and it was good to see. You’ve got to rely on your playmakers with those deals and then they can make some big plays.”
The inability to rally the offense was a recurring theme for Bowling Green all afternoon. When the Falcons held a 17-10 lead, 10 of those points could be attributed solely to special teams execution, and the initial reliance on that unit showed in the second half.
“We wanted to do more offensively,” McDonald said. “We had opportunities, just couldn’t really get into rhythm. I think that was what was tough, because it takes all 11 of us every single play. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times and you can’t do that, especially when you’re playing a superior team.”
The Bruins more than tripled Bowling Green’s offensive output at halftime, holding a 369 to 102 advantage in the yards department. Things only got worse in the second half, as Loeffler’s team finished the afternoon with 162 yards, averaging 1.5 yards per rush and 3.5 yards per passing play — paling in comparison to UCLA’s 626 yards. McDonald competed half of his 34 passes, generating 125 yards through the air, and yet, the passing attack was Bowling Green’s strong suit Saturday.
“That quarterback (McDonald), and I talked to him after the game, he’s a tough sucker,” Kelly said. “We got after him today. And he just kept bouncing back, making plays. They have a really sound scheme. For us to do what we did, hold them to under 200 yards and really seven points, that was really impressive to start the season.”
Bowling Green starts 0-1 for the third consecutive year and still awaits its first Week 1 FBS win since 2013. The Falcons return home next week, hoping to generate a more explosive offense as they host Eastern Kentucky, who nearly upset fellow MAC peer Eastern Michigan on Friday evening.
For that home opener, Loeffler hopes his starting center Jakari Robinson, who started a handful games at Cincinnati, receives his NCAA transfer waiver and gets cleared to play after missing Saturday’s outing.
“I’ve got faith in the NCAA and I think they’re going to do the right thing here, I really do,” Loeffler said. “If there was a poster child for a waiver situation, it’s this one. This is why the waiver situation was created hands down. He is a 3.1 student, graduated, and came in second for offensive captain. He has a child, is married, and he has worked all year long to make sure he can provide for his family. Not to go into the specifics whatsoever, it was an error that no one can control. I am confident the NCAA will do absolutely the right thing. I really am and I hope soon.”