When the Fresno State Bulldogs take the field in Reno for their matchup with the Nevada Wolf Pack, they will continue where they left off before their three-week hiatus due to COVID-19 cancellations: on the road, away from Fresno. Nevada, meanwhile, has played every week since the Mountain West's season kicked off in late October, a momentous accomplishment given the incredible volatility of the 2020 season.
One commonality between the two teams, however, can be traced back to a single opponent — Hawaii — and equal results. Fresno State opened its season with a 15-point home loss to the Warriors but has won each of its next three games, including a 35-16 win over Utah State on Nov. 14 in its most recent game. Nevada, on the other hand, brought a perfect 5-0 record into the Thanksgiving weekend but left Aloha Stadium with its streak broken after a 24-21 loss in Oahu.
This series has been well-contested over the years, with Fresno State holding the all-time lead 29-21-1 and the lone tie coming in 1928. The Wolf Pack won the first four meetings from 1923-26, but a run of nine straight Fresno State wins from 1934-42 and a stretch of eight wins in nine games from 1999-2007 helped to push the Bulldogs in front. Nevada snapped Fresno State's most recent two-game winning streak with a 35-28 win last season in Fresno.
Fresno State at Nevada
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Nevada -7
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Fresno State possesses a potent passing attack, led by Jake Haener's 296.5 yards passing per game and nine touchdowns, which trails only his counterpart on the opposing sideline (more on him below). Haener could hardly be stopped in the Bulldogs' win over Utah State; he threw for 422 yards and four touchdowns while completing 29 of 38 passes. It was a nice momentum boost for Haener — who has seized the starting job after sitting out the 2019 season due to his transfer from Washington — as he threw three interceptions in the loss to Hawaii to start the season and threw for just 164 yards against UNLV on Nov. 7.
After Ronnie Rivers erupted for 133 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Rebels, he nearly matched it in a 132-yard effort with a touchdown against Utah State. Rivers leads the Mountain West with seven rushing touchdowns this season and has accounted for more than half (nine) of the Bulldogs' 17 touchdowns in 2020. In the passing game, Haener has spread the ball around, as Jalen Cropper, Rivers and Keric Wheatfall each average at least four receptions and 56 yards per game. Haener and Cropper connected 10 times against Utah State for 202 yards and three touchdowns, while Josh Kelly had his first multi-reception game of the season with four catches for 94 yards and the lone touchdown not hauled in by Cropper.
While not very active in turnovers, Nevada has done well to limit opponents in both yardage and scoring this season. The Wolf Pack rank second in the conference with just 321.5 yards allowed per game and allow 21.2 points per game. Hawaii was just the second team in six games to score more than 21 points against Nevada this season and the first since the Wolf Pack's season-opening overtime win against Wyoming.
When Nevada Has the Ball
Like Fresno State, Nevada's offense lives primarily in the air, as the Wolf Pack lead the Mountain West and sit top-10 nationally in passing offense. Carson Strong paces the conference in nearly every passing metric, most notably with his 16 touchdowns and 328.8 yards passing per game. Last week against Hawaii, Strong completed 20 of his 25 passes for 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns, his only game held under 250 yards this season.
Strong will need a performance that matches his name in order to help the Wolf Pack rebound from the loss last week, as Nevada's rushing offense is among the 20 lowest in the FBS at 115.3 yards per game. Toa Taua had his second 100-yard game of the season against Hawaii with 131 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. When Strong isn't handing off, look for Romeo Doubs to be one of his primary targets in the passing game. Doubs leads the Mountain West in receiving yards per game (131.3) and touchdowns (nine), which rank fourth and eighth, respectively, in the FBS.
Fresno State has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses' backfields with 20 sacks this season, a 5.0 sacks-per-game rate that tops the FBS (with the caveat that the Bulldogs have only played four games). Even still, that 20-sack total is more than 90 other FBS programs have amassed this season, even though a hefty share of that group has played at least twice as many games — if not more — than Fresno State. Kwami Jones has led the charge up front for the Bulldogs, notching four sacks and seven tackles for loss to rank first and third, respectively, in the Mountain West in those categories.
Nevada has scored on all but one of its 25 red-zone trips, a 96 percent conversion rate that — combined with Strong's ability to limit turnovers — could help Nevada get back to its winning ways. Both teams have been electric through the air, however, with Fresno State averaging nearly 38 points over its last three games while Nevada topped 30 in each of its first three games but has yet to do so since.
Prediction: Fresno State 37, Nevada 29
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Ronnie Rivers photo courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)