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Nevada football 2021 offseason opponent preview: Fresno State

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Barring any unforeseen circumstances (can we not have another pandemic, please?), there are six Saturdays until the Nevada football season kicks off.

This is our second annual offseason opponent preview. Each Thursday leading up to the season, I will be previewing each Pack opponent on their 2021 schedule — starting at the beginning.

This week, we preview Nevada’s seventh game of the season against Fresno State. Here’s the Wolf Pack’s full 2021 schedule to date:

Nevada Football 2021 Schedule

Date: Opponent: TV: Time (all time PT)
Date: Opponent: TV: Time (all time PT)
Sept. 4 at California FS1 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 11 vs. Idaho State TBA TBA
Sept. 18 at Kansas State ESPN+ 11:05 a.m.
Sept. 25 BYE ---------
Oct. 2 at Boise State Fox Networks (specifics not yet announced) TBA
Oct. 9 vs. New Mexico State CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Hawai'i CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 at Fresno State Fox Networks TBA
Oct. 29 vs. UNLV CBS Sports Network 7 p.m.
Nov. 6 vs. San Jose State Fox Networks TBA
Nov. 13 at San Diego State CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 19 vs. Air Force FS1 6/7/7:30 p.m.
Nov. 27 at Colorado State CBS Sports Network 6 p.m.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it!

Previous weeks:

Week 1: California

Week 2: Idaho State

Week 3: Kansas State

Week 4: Bye

Week 5: Boise State

Week 6: New Mexico State

Week 7: Hawai’i

Week 8: Fresno State Bulldogs

2020 record: 3-3 (All MWC)

When: Saturday, Oct. 23

Where: Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Calif.

Matchup History: Fresno State leads 28-23-1

Fresno State 2020 season-in-review:

Similarly to the majority of Mountain West programs, COVID-19 issues within Fresno State’s program handicapped its season. It lost its season-opener to Hawai’i, 34-19, before ripping off three straight victories against Colorado State, UNLV and Utah State by an average margin-of-victory of 17.7 points. After abrupt COVID-19 complications postponed two contests against San Diego State and then-undefeated San Jose State, the Bulldogs fell to the Wolf Pack (37-26) followed by a shocking home upset against New Mexico (49-39).

Fresno State on offense:

With all of its top skill position players returning, the Bulldogs possess one of the top offenses in the Mountain West.

They ranked atop the conference in total offense (479.3 ypg) and passing offense (356.3 ypg) with the second-best scoring offense (32.8 ypg) — totaling at least 35 points in four of its six contests.

Fresno State’s passing attack is led by former Washington transfer Jake Haener, who was an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention honoree in 2020.

Haener completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. In the last three games of the season, Haener went 96-for-146 (65.8 percent) for 1,257 yards with nine touchdowns to just two interceptions.

He placed among the top-10 nationally in passing yards per game (336.8), passing efficiency (153.4) and completions per game (25), while placing No. 16 in yards per attempt (8.7) and just outside the top-25 in completion percentage.

Fresno State returns All-Conference tailback Ronnie Rivers, who is projected to be one of the top running backs in the Mountain West entering 2021.

Rivers tallied 507 yards on 100 attempts (5.1 ypc). He averaged more than one rushing touchdown per game, notching seven in six games. The 5-foot-9 tailback added 27 catches — second-most on the team — with 265 yards and two more scores thru the air.

Outside of Nevada, the Bulldogs might possess the best group of receivers in Jalen Cropper, Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly.

Cropper led the trio with 37 receptions for 520 yards and five touchdowns. His 520 receiving yards ranked No. 5 nationally among players who played six games or fewer — trailing Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge (768), Purdue’s David Bell (625), Northern Illinois’ Tyrice Richie (597) and Stanford’s Simi Fehoko (574), per Stathead.

Wheatfall was third on the team with 23 catches for 363 yards and a score, while Kelly hauled in 22 catches for 330 yards with a touchdown.

Fresno State’s offensive line, which surrendered the conference’s second-most sacks — fourth-most nationally — per game (4.0) last season, must form a better wall around Haener. It won’t help with the departure of All-Mountain West second-team right tackle Syrus Tuitele, who signed as undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills.

The line will be led by senior 6-foot-7 left tackle Dontae Bull, along with center Matt Smith and right tackle Donte Adkins Jr., who is transitioning from left guard.

Fresno State on defense:

The Bulldogs were excellent at getting to the quarterback, finishing top-5 in the nation in sacks per game (4.17) and second in the Mountain West in total sacks with 25, finishing one below the highest member (SJSU) despite playing two fewer games.

In general, however, the Bulldog defense was porous.

They had the conference’s third-worst rushing defense (212.3 ypg), the fourth-worst total defense (430.0 ypg) and the fifth-worst scoring defense (30.0 ypg).

They surrendered a Mountain West-most nine rushing plays of 30-plus yards on the ground, including five that went at least 40 yards and four past 50.

Fresno State’s front-four returns three of its four starters, led by second-team All-Mountain West defensive end David Perales.

Perales recorded a team-high nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage and finished second in tackles (28) and sacks (4.0). He also forced a conference-high four fumbles — all coming in consecutive games — with two fumble recoveries.

Defensive tackle and All-Conference Honorable Mention honoree Kevin Atkins finished T-5 in tackles with 23 and also tied defensive end Kwami Jones for the team’s lead in sacks with five. Jones finished with 16 tackles and six tackles-for-loss in 2020.

Levelle Bailey and Malachi Langley anchor Fresno State’s two linebacker spots. Langley finished fourth on the team with 25 tackles, including 3.5 tackles-for-loss with 1.5 sacks. Bailey finished with 21 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, two pass breakups and one forced fumble.

Fresno State’s top tackler in 2020, Bralyn Lux, possesses the top cornerback spot. Though he didn’t earn an All-Conference spot as a freshman, Lux tallied 30 tackles — 27 solo — with one interceptions, four pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

He will be flanked by safeties Evan Williams and LJ Early, with Wylan Free holding the team’s No. 2 corner position.

Free had 18 tackles with four pass breakups and one pick in 2020 while Williams, third on the team in tackles (27), had two pass breakups with one forced fumble. Early tallied just 12 tackles, though 2021 will mark his first full season of experience.

My thoughts:

The preseason Mountain West poll was released Wednesday. For the first time since joining the conference in 2012, Nevada was picked to win the West division; conversely, Fresno State was picked to finish fourth.

With COVID-19 implications fracturing its 2020 season, I expect Fresno State, under second-year head coach Kalen DeBoer, to surpass this somewhat underwhelming expectation. DeBoer has operated extremely potent, high-scoring offenses throughout his coaching career. It now returns all its top skill position players with another offseason to become acclimated to the system. With even an average defense, Fresno State could automatically become a threat to Nevada to win the West. Be aware, they’re a sneaky underdog. Nevada will have to be atop its game to pull one out on the road against this vaunted Bulldog attack.