The Fresno State Bulldogs and New Mexico Lobos will meet in the regular-season finale Saturday night in Las Vegas, technically a neutral site, but a home away from home for the displaced Lobos this season. Fresno State fell to 3-2 following a 37-26 loss to Nevada last week, snapping a three-game winning streak under first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer.
The Bulldogs were significantly undermanned against the Wolf Pack, playing despite more than a dozen players being unavailable following the cancelation of back-to-back games due to COVID-19 protocols the previous two weeks. New Mexico gave its first-year head coach, Danny Gonzales, his first career victory — and snapped a 14-game losing streak as a program — with a 17-16 upset of Wyoming. The Lobos are now 1-5.
Fresno State vs. New Mexico (Las Vegas)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12, at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
Spread: Fresno State -11
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Running back Ronnie Rivers is the key to the Fresno State offense, though he is considered "day-to-day" after being banged up last week. The senior is tied for the lead in the Mountain West with seven rushing touchdowns on a conference-leading 99 carries, and he ranks second in the league with 508 rushing yards. Rivers also has caught a team-high 27 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns. If Rivers is limited or unavailable this week, expect Jordan Mims to get a heavier workload. Mims has gained just 60 yards on 25 attempts this season (2.4 ypc) but has more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground as a Bulldog.
Quarterback Jake Haener, in his first season as a starter at Fresno State following a transfer from Washington, has proven to be an excellent addition. Haener has narrowly edged out Nevada's Carson Strong to take the lead atop the Mountain West leaderboard with 334.2 passing yards per game following consecutive 400-yard performances. The junior has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,671 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions (three of which occurred in the season opener back on Oct. 24) while averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt — currently tied with San Jose State's Nick Starkel for the lead in the conference.
Haener, who ranks second for the Bulldogs with 81 rushing yards and two scores on the ground, has plenty of other weapons to work with. Jalen Cropper leads the team with 386 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 25 receptions and has surpassed 100 yards in consecutive games. Cropper had a huge game against Utah State, catching 10 passes for 202 yards and three scores. Keric Wheatfall has been a consistent performer with 363 yards and one touchdown on 23 receptions, including a six-catch, 113-yard effort last week. Josh Kelly (15 rec. 234 yds., TD) and Eric Brooks (13, 178) offered great depth at the position with Zane Pope out for the first four games, though Pope set a career-high with 96 yards on five receptions, including a touchdown, in his first action last week.
When New Mexico Has the Ball
No team has been hit harder than New Mexico by quarterback injuries — though that unlucky scenario set up a made-for-Disney storyline for Isaiah Chavez, a true freshman walk-on, who was listed fifth on the Lobos depth chart earlier this year.
A July shoulder injury to Brandt Hughes ended his season before it began, leaving Tevaka Tuioti as the unquestioned starter heading into fall camp. Unfortunately, Tuioti has been out since Nov. 14 due to concussion protocols. Trae Hall took over but was injured on Nov. 26 against Utah State and missed last week's game against Wyoming, leaving Connor Genal, a redshirt freshman walk-on, to make the start against the Cowboys. But Genal hurt his wrist, pushing Chavez — the only healthy remaining quarterback on the roster — into the game in the second quarter. Chavez completed four of his first eight pass attempts for just 11 yards, but he managed to hit Bobby Cole on a 44-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter that proved to be the game-winner. Now, Chavez is expected to make his first career start, leaving multipurpose running back Bryson Carroll as the emergency quarterback.
The receiving corps also has been short-handed with top wideout Jordan Kress (12 rec., 224 yds., 2 TDs) out for each of the last two games. Fellow senior Emmanuel Logan-Greene has emerged as the top target, as his team-high 23 receptions have produced 222 yards. Freshman Andrew Erickson leads the way with 264 yards and is tied with Kress for the team lead with two touchdowns among his 17 catches. Tight end Marcus Williams (11 rec., 114 yds.) and receiver Cedric Patterson III (7, 87, TD) offer some depth as well.
Carroll ran for 536 yards and two touchdowns in 2019 and entered this season as the expected primary running back. However, he's just fifth on the team with 97 rushing yards on 22 carries, giving way to Cole and freshman Nathaniel Jones. Cole leads the squad with 410 yards and three scores on 79 carries, and Jones ranks second with 210 yards and two touchdowns on 41 rushing attempts. Carroll has caught nine passes for 79 yards, and Cole has chipped in with 75 receiving yards on five grabs, including last week's long touchdown.
New Mexico head coach Danny Gonzales avoided a winless first season at his alma mater, and Isaiah Chavez's role in the deciding touchdown is a great story in an otherwise difficult season for New Mexico. Gonzales' history as a successful defensive coordinator and the hire of his mentor and former Lobos head coach Rocky Long to lead the unit point to a bright future. Nevertheless, New Mexico has allowed 6.91 yards per play defensively this season (which ranks No. 11 in the Mountain West and No. 120 nationally) — one small sign there is a lot of room for improvement.
Fresno State has had its ups and downs, though the positives have largely outweighed the negatives so far. Last week's struggles on special teams, which were a direct result of COVID-19-related implications that forced quarterback Jake Haener to punt twice and receiver Mac Dalena to take over PAT duties, are a concern. The same goes for Ronnie Rivers' injury situation. However, the Bulldogs seem to be healthier this week than last, and Haener has quickly become one of the most productive passers in the conference. Fresno State also has a lot of room to improve on defense (the unit ranks 80th in FBS with 5.89 yards allowed per play), but the Bulldogs should have a big advantage against New Mexico's depleted offense. Expect the Bulldogs to secure a winning season for first-year head Kalen DeBoer and set themselves up for a potential bowl game with a win Saturday.
Prediction: Fresno State 37, New Mexico 17
(Isaiah Chavez and Bobby Cole photo courtesy of @UNMLoboFB)