Aztecs offense goes into snooze while Bulldogs find a way to win. Down 21-10 at halftime, Fresno State pulls off last minute 32-28 victory behind quarterback Jake Haener to take the lead in the MWC West Division.
It seems the reason that Fresno State held closed practices this week, was to hide the return of injured quarterback Jake Haener. He had been injured in the week 3 game against USC with an ankle injury and the Bulldogs had been playing with backup Logan Fife. Haener returned on Saturday night looking like his old self in leading the Bulldogs from a come-from-behind victory against the Aztecs, 32-28. Haener would finish the night 35/46 passing for 402 yards, 3 TD’s and 2 interceptions. He was also sacked seven times during the game. No play was bigger than a 37 yard TD pass to Nikko Remigio with 56 seconds left to give the Bulldogs their margin of victory.
It really was a game of two halves, not only between teams but also quarterbacks. Jayden Mayden was 13/15 for 228 yds and one touchdown in the first half. This included a stretch of 9 in a row. He led the Aztecs to a 21-10 lead and seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. He would end the night with 19/24 passing for 291 yards with 2 TD’s and 2 interceptions. He would also lead the Aztecs in rushing with 43 yards on 8 carries and 2 more touchdowns. This really was a breakout game for Mayden and if it weren’t for the ineffective play calling by the coaches, this would be Mayden’s moment to shine and give credibility to being the offensive player of the week. He has been exactly what the Aztecs needed on offense since taking over for Braxton Burmeister for the Hawaii game.
Meantime, Jake Haener and the Bulldogs were under constant Aztec pressure the first half. They started the scoring with a 35 yard field goal from Abraham Montano and follow that up with a 21 yard pass from Haener to Remigio halfway through the second quarter. The Aztecs, meanwhile, scored on a Mayden 28 yard quarterback keeper in the first quarter. In the second quarter, Mayden guided the Aztecs on a 6 play 74 yard drive capped off with a brilliant run fake and hitting running back Kenan Christon out of the backfield on a sideline pass. He would gather it in and scamper 28 yards for the score. The Aztecs would score with less than two minutes left before halftime on a Mayden one yard run putting the Aztecs in a fairly comfortable 21-10 position.
Aztec Offense goes extremely conservative in second half
The Aztecs received the second half kickoff and it must have been the decision to go conservative as their next drive featured 6 runs for 19 yards, a pass for 29 and then an ill advised throw by Mayden that resulted in an interception. As he was scrambling out of the pocket, he decided to throw the ball away, but it didn’t quite get out of bounds as it was intercepted by Cam Lockridge and returned 28 yards. The Bulldogs took over and were moving the ball until Noah Avinger picked off Haener in the endzone. The Aztecs would go on an eight play, 80 yard drive highlighted by punter Jack Browning ripping off 33 yards on a fourth and four from their own 26. In his run, he became the human cartwheel and was injured and was replaced with kicker Jarrett Reeser. The Aztecs would complete this drive with a Mayden to Matthews seven yard touchdown catch, his first TD reception of the year. No one knew at the time, but that would be the last Aztec points of the game. After holding the Bulldogs on the next series, their punt was muffed and recovered by Fresno State at the Aztec ten yardline. Haener needed only two plays to score with an eight yard scoring strike to Zane Pope. Suddenly the lead was 28-17 heading into the fourth quarter. No reason to panic just yet. The Aztecs next drive went eight plays for 42 yards as they were stopped on fourth down. Fresno took over and again, behind Haener, marched down the field, behind a pass-heavy attack. It ended with a Patrick McMorris interception in the endzone and another Bulldog assault thwarted. On the third play of their next drive, Mayden was sacked and fumbled, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Aztec ten. The next series by the Bulldogs seemed to highlight the Aztec defensive strength as they held Fresno State to a 3 and out and blocked the resulting field goal attempt. The Aztecs took over with less than five minutes left and the opportunity to run some clock. Well, they only managed to take one minute off as the Bulldogs used two of their timeouts. The resulting punt put the Bulldogs at their own 20 with less than four minutes remaining. They then went on an 11 play, 80 yard drive resulting in a three yard Jordan Mims touchdown run. This was followed by a two-point conversion and suddenly the Aztecs were only up 28-25. All 37,107 fans in attendance knew an onside kick was coming. Bulldogs kicker Abraham Montano executed a perfect kick that bounced off Tyrell Shavers hands and evaded Jesse Matthews and was recovered by Fresno States Zane Pope at the Aztec 37 yard-line. It took Haener only one play to hit Remigio on the scoring strike and with the ensuing extra point, the Bulldogs had their 32-28 lead, sending their Halloween fans into delirium. Mayden was intercepted ending the Aztec's attempt at capturing first place in the division.
Bulldogs have a clear path to the title game. What is in store for the Aztecs?
Fresno State controls their own destiny, now having beaten the top contenders in the West. Their schedule is home against Hawaii next week, then at UNLV, at Nevada and finally at home the last week of the season against Wyoming. If they win out, they will represent the west in all probability against Boise State. Even with a division loss, they will own the tiebreakers between San Jose and San Diego. It would take a second loss to change thingsl The Aztecs meanwhile have a home matchup with UNLV next week and, what looked to be another huge matchup before this loss, a home matchup against San Jose State, fresh off an emotional 35-28 hard-fought win against Nevada. It remains to be seen how healthy UNLV is after a bye week. Their star quarterback, Doug Brumfeld has been out since their game with San Jose State. The Aztecs still need two victories to become bowl eligible. That should be doable with wins against UNLV and New Mexico and opportunities against San Jose and Air Force. What looked promising heading into the year has turned into a ho-hum result so far.
In addition to Haener returning from injuries, Safety Evan Williams also returned with eight tackles. WR Josh Kelly and DB Justin Houston dressed but did not play. The Aztecs out-gained the Bulldogs 449-391 and the defense held Fresno to -3 yards rushing. With that type of stat line, this should have been a W for the Aztecs. Chance Bell carried for 41 yards and Kenan Christon added 34 more. Christon added 75 yards on two receptions while Tyrell Shavers, Mekhi Shaw and Jesse Matthews all contributed with receptions. Cause for concern were three lost fumbles, two by Jordan Byrd and one by Mayden. These will need to be addressed. On defense Michael Shawcroft is back to his early season form with 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Jonah Tavai added 2.5 more sacks and tackles for loss. Braxton Burmeister did not play, which was a bit of a surprise.
There were lost opportunities that will need to be addressed this week. Coach Hoke in his post-game radio interview said, “...we didn’t finish the game on offense, defense or the kicking game. We had plenty of opportunities, and we didn’t do that. We, as coaches, need to do a better job.” It seems that there have been many excuses that the coaches need to do a better job. They seemed to be on the right track with Jeff Horton and Ryan Lindlay. One must question why the decision to change what was working. Why go so conservative until later in the game, when the outcome is decided? Is it possible the bane of the Aztecs starts with the top man? Social media posts cry for a change, as there have been too many lost opportunities and problems directly resulting from poor and ineffective coaching decisions. The Aztecs were hoping to come into Fresno and control the Bulldogs. Instead, they wound up being tricked by a monstrous Bulldog victory, which will likely relegate the Aztecs to either second or third in the division.