Well, that could have gone a lot better. Could have gone a whole lot worse though, and a win is a win. Jake Haener and Jalen Cropper are very quickly moving into the same realm as Derek Carr and Davante Adams for truly elite Fresno State pairings. After a sluggish 1-6 passing start for Haener, he still ended up passing for 378 yards and 5 touchdowns while again completing more than 70% of his passes. Haener definitely didn’t seem like himself for a good part of the game, but when it truly mattered, he showed the exact same skill and determination we saw last Saturday to put the game away for the Bulldogs.
This game had all of the makings of a classic Fresno State trap game. Short week after an emotional win, with a banged-up team and a UNLV team with nothing to lose. And for a long time, it really looked like they would pull off the massive upset. The RB screen game to Charles Williams was lethal, the defense looked absolutely lost against it. Over-pursuits, missed assignments, bad tackling form, everything led the Rebels to an early 14-0 lead. At least this should be the last time that we have to be reminded that Charles Williams is from Fresno, and that Tim DeRuyter’s staff ignored him. Williams contributed 198 combined yards as he absolutely gashed Fresno up and down the field.
While the first quarter definitely belonged to the Rebels, the Bulldogs began to figure themselves out in the 2nd quarter. An 11 play drive was enough to get them down to the 8yd line, and Cesar Silva made his return to the field good with a 25yd field goal to get the Dogs on the board early in the 2nd. Multiple punts would follow, as UNLV QB Donald Brumfield left the game with an apparent foot injury, and Cameron Friel was not able to generate much before the half. As the clock ticked down though, Jake Haener was able to generate a scoring drive, including an 18yd touchdown pass to Erik Brooks for his second score in two weeks. At this point, things started to get weird, as Fresno State tried a two point conversion. They attempted the Philly Special, but Cropper could not escape the pressure, and was down at the 1yd line to make the halftime score 14-9.
The start of the second half could not really have gone worse for the Bulldogs, as UNLV scored on their first play with Tyleek Collins evading everyone on an 80yd screen pass touchdown. Like I said earlier, screen passes just demolished this defense, and represent a massive flaw that needs to be fixed before this week’s game at Hawaii.
After going down 21-9, the Fresno State offense finally began to find a rhythm, with some acrobatic catches from Tre Watson and Josh Kelly to move the ball, before Jalen Cropper caught his first of 4 touchdowns in the second half from 4yds out. A Cesar Silva kick brought the Dogs back within 5, and the fans could start to feel that Fresno State was beginning to wake up. The game was definitely still a rock fight, but this wasn’t a team that would quit and give up the upset.
UNLV would punt on 2 straight drives, as the defense began to stand up when they had to and keep the Rebels off the board in the 3rd quarter. Like the 2nd quarter, the 3rd would again belong to Jake Haener and the receiving corps. Keric Wheatfall caught a 55yd bomb down the middle of the field before Jalen Cropper caught his second straight TD by diving for the pylon on a 23yd play to finally take the lead. Another 2pt conversion would fail, this time with Wheatfall failing to cross the goal line, but the Dogs were ahead now 22-21.
One more UNLV punt would set up another Fresno State TD, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, Jake Haener hit Jalen Cropper for a circus catch TD. It initially looked like he had caught it out of bounds, but replay review upheld the touchdown, and the super slo-mo made it look like he did tap the toe in-bounds. This time, Fresno State took the easy route, and just kicked the PAT to go up 29-21. Why they hadn’t kicked before, I’ll never know. But a lot of points were left on the field.
In the fourth quarter, things got weird again in a late-night MWC game. UNLV would answer with a broken play screen pass that went for 55yds down to the Bulldog 5. Then all Courtney Reese had to do was drive the ball in. UNLV would go for their own 2pt conversion to try to tie the game, but their pass attempt would fall incomplete and maintain a Fresno State lead 29-27.
It was almost a completely clean game turnover-wise for Jake Haener, but sadly, it wasn’t to be. A deep strike to Erik Brooks bounced through his hands, and the Rebel defender was perfectly placed to intercept it and return it into Bulldog territory. It was just an incredibly fluky play, can’t really put blame on Haener or Brooks for that one, just football. Unfortunately, this would lead to UNLV taking the lead once again, this time kicking a field goal to go ahead by one point, 30-29.
Normally, if you’ve been a Fresno State fan long enough, you expect everything to keep going wrong. But Kalen DeBoer is not Pat Hill, and this is not a Fresno State team of old. Jake Haener immediately hit Ty Jones to move into UNLV territory on the ensuing drive, Ronnie Rivers picked up 12 yards on two plays, then it was Cropper all alone in the corner for a beautiful 4th touchdown catch of the game, tying Davante Adams’ record from 2013. Yet another 2pt conversion failed (that’s 4 in the game, 3 by Fresno State if you’re following along), but the Dogs were back ahead, looking to seal this one away.
When Fresno State needed a defensive hero, Aaron Mosby was there to answer the call. He flew off the right edge, stripping the ball from Cameron Friel right where Kwami Jones was able to recover the fumble. The Bulldogs were able to get the ball down to the 13 yard line, allowing Cesar Silva to boot through a 31yd kick to make it an 8 point margin, which would be enough for the win. UNLV turned the ball over on downs, and Fresno State fans were finally able to exhale. The rocking atmosphere of Bulldog Stadium kept the team in it, but now the party was able to start, as Fresno State won their first conference game and moved to 4-1.
Coming up Next:
Fresno State will now make the long trip to the islands to take on a feisty Hawaii team on Saturday night. It’s been 14 years since Fresno State last lost in Hawaii, but the team will need to make sure that the defense is locked in to stop Calvin Turner and Chevan Cordero. If not, the dream season could end rather abruptly. The Dogs are an early 11 point favorite, but they were a 30 point favorite over the Rebels.
Next time the Bulldogs return home against Nevada, they will also be retiring Lorenzo Neal’s No.22 jersey, an honor that is long overdue for the fullback.
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