It took all 60 minutes and a season-high 205 rushing yards for Fresno State to put away Nevada, 34-32, Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium. With the Wolf Pack a two-point conversion away from tying the game, QB Carson Strong’s pass was out of the end zone to preserve the Fresno State victory.
The Bulldogs could not stop Strong’s second-half resiliency. He matched three Fresno State scoring drives with scoring drives of his own. With less than a minute to go, Strong drove 90 yards for a TD to pull within two with two seconds remaining. He finished the night with 476 yards passing and 4 touchdowns, on a 49-for-61 night.
But, he was just a yard short trying to find his favorite receiver, Romeo Doubs in the back of the end zone. Doubs came down with the ball, but was out of bounds. He finished the night with 19 catches for 203 yards.
“If you want to watch a game to the last second, just come watch us play, right? Every play comes down to the last drive,” a relieved Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer said.
The Bulldogs seemingly put the dagger in the Wolf Pack, when David Perales forced a fumble on a strip sack at midfield late in the game. Nevada forced a punt, setting up near magic from Strong.
“We made it close at the end, but we got to get the win. It’s awesome,” Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener said.
Fresno State (6-2, 3-1 Mountain West Conference) faces San Diego State on the road next Saturday, with first place on the line.
The Block That Led to the Unrelinquished Lead
In a game that was expected to be dominated by the quarterbacks – which it mostly was – it was rushing that sparked the Bulldogs offense. That would make Lorenzo Neal proud.
As the legendary Bulldog running back and longtime NFL pro had his number retired at halftime, he saw the Bulldogs seemingly run at will. Jordan Mims rushed for 134 yards and a TD, helping sustain two second-half touchdown drives.
“Jordan stepped up. He’s a great player, great friend of mine, the kid. (He) ran its tail off tonight,” Haener said.
Just when it seemed like Haener was off to a slow start – he missed his first five passes – the running game stepped up. Running back Ronnie Rivers found a hole on the right side, aided by a beautiful downfield block RG Mose Vavao. The 325-pound sophomore made a Wolf Pack defensive back disappear under a one-man cloud of humanity.
Rivers breezed 64 yards to daylight for the touchdown.
“That’s what Mose does. He’s a big body guy in the interior that can move some people. Her certainly did,” DeBoer said.
Haener said the play was a run-pass option.
Unfortunately, Rivers was injured on the play. DeBoer said he was “rolled up on” when Nevada tackled Rivers at the end zone. It was a lower leg, possibly an ankle, injury.
“I had to step up and make plays, just like he would,” a humble Mims said after the game. He said he would take 24 hours to celebrate before preparing for next week.
— Mountain West (@MountainWest) October 23, 2021
The fortunes of the respective quarterbacks changed after the first quarter score. Strong, who was 13-for-16 passing and driving to a score, threw an interception at the Bulldogs’ 3-yard line. DeRon Bland stepped in front of Doubs for the pick.
Haener led the ensuing drive for Fresno State, using 10 plays to go 91 yards for the touchdown. His precision pass found WR Keric Wheatfall down the left sideline for a 42 yard completion. Four plays later, RB Jordan Mims took it in from the 1.
The Wolf Pack struggled to find the momentum for the rest of the first half. Even with a gift turnover of a Jalen Cropper fumble deep in Bulldog territory that led to a touchdown, Nevada could not find a rhythm. On the next drive, when Strong seemed to regain his form, the Wolf Pack faced a 4th and inches at the Fresno State 32. Toa Taua, the running back, took the wildcat formation snap, handing it off to Devonte Lee. He was stuffed by the Bulldogs line, forcing the turnover on downs.
The Pass Leads to the Run
The Bulldogs smashed Nevada over and over with two types of plays utilizing the running attack. On one the running back would take the handoff from the shotgun snap. Mims ran for 20-plus yards on consecutive drives to start the second half. On the first play of the half, Mims took the handoff out of the shotgun finding the right side of the line open when the Wolf Pack thought the ball was going left. That led to a 26 yard run. Fresno State needed only 99 seconds for a 11-yard TD pass to Wheatfall, even with a pass interference penalty (declined) and the receiver losing his helmet.
HE WASN’T GOING TO BE DENIED ?
— Fresno State Football (@FresnoStateFB) October 24, 2021
The other type of run used an end around. Haener would toss the runner the ball in front of him, technically a pass. That led to a third-quarter TD for Mims.
— Mountain West (@MountainWest) October 24, 2021
Haener finished with 256 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions on a 26-for-38 night.
Neal Honored with Number Retirement
At halftime, Neal became the eighth Bulldog to have his number retired. Number 22 was unveiled, hanging along the likes of the Carr brothers, Kevin Sweeney and Henry Ellard.
Neal paid tribute his head coach, Jim Sweeney, during a brief speech. He appreciated Kevin being on hand to carry out the family’s legacy.
Aztec Showdown Next
Fresno State travels to southern California next Saturday for a showdown with San Diego State. The winner will have the inside track in the MWC west division.
The #24 Aztecs won at Air Force, 20-14, to improve their record to 7-0 overall, and 3-0 in the Mountain West.
The game will be played in Carson, more than 100 miles north of San Diego. The traditional home stadium – best known as Jack Murphy Stadium – was demolished, with plans to rebuild on the Mission Valley site underway. The Aztecs chose to play at Dignity Health Sports Park instead, because it was the closest “big time” stadium available. Baseball’s Petco Park was not an option, it would require major renovations and a change to the lease. University of San Diego’s field was deemed too small, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote last year.
The student section sold out, at approximately 4,000 tickets. That did not include the Bulldog Marching Band.
Because there was no Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the game was elevated from FS2 to FS1. A boxing card from May featuring Andy Ruiz Jr. beating Chris Arreola aired on FS2 instead.
Several NFL teams were slated to scout the game, although it appeared only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia made it to the Fresno Stare press box. One scout said his team needed lots of help and he was looking at the QBs, Haener and Strong.