Everything came up roses late last week for the Fresno State Bulldogs, who are hoping to maintain the momentum on Friday night at home against Mountain West divisional rival UNLV.
The Bulldogs' last-second 40-37 triumph over No. 13 UCLA in the Rose Bowl was one of the signature victories in Week 3. It also landed Fresno State back in Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2018.
But the Bulldogs (3-1) can't afford to become complacent, even against a team like UNLV, which has lost its first three games. Despite the significant advantage Fresno State has on paper for this game, letdowns are real in the college game.
Just ask UCLA, who entered last Saturday's game undefeated. Now it's the Bulldogs' turn to handle the limelight that comes with an upset of ranked team and being ranked yourself.
"It's a challenge for everybody because the alerts pop up on your phone," head coach Kalen DeBoer told reporters. "And when there's 80 of them popping up every half-a-day, you can't help but take a look for half-a-second.
"Not celebrating (that ranking) — for a little bit anyway — to me would be a shame because the guys worked too hard not to embrace it."
Just not too long, coach.
With the non-conference slate behind them, the Bulldogs enter Mountain West play against a UNLV team that's had to endure a 0-3 start. The Rebels opened the season with a double-overtime loss to FCS member Eastern Washington, no slouch in their own subdivision, followed by lopsided decisions to ranked Power 5 teams — then-No. 23 Arizona State (37-10) and No. 14 Iowa State (48-3).
So maybe let’s cut them some slack and start fresh with the Mountain West calendar.
"Our guys are resilient," UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "They keep fighting. They care about each other. … We’re all pissed off in there. That type of hurt and that type of identity of understanding where you want to be. Where you want to go is part of that growth process."
Let’s see if the Rebels grow this Friday — or shrink as they’ve done too often in recent years. Fresno State has defeated UNLV three straight times, outscoring the Rebels 144-53 in that stretch.
UNLV vs. No. 22 Fresno State
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -30.5
When UNLV Has the Ball
The lack of success for UNLV can often be traced back to inconsistency at quarterback. This situation doesn't look like it will improve against Fresno State either.
The starter will either be redshirt freshman Doug Brumfield, true freshman Cameron Friel, or fifth-year junior Tate Martell. Brumfield missed last week's loss to Iowa State because of an upper body injury, but he returned to practice this week. Friel got his first start against the Cyclones because of the injury, while Martell, the highly regarded recruit from Las Vegas prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman who started his career at Ohio State before transferring to Miami and then returning home, made his Rebels debut as the backup. There's also TCU transfer Justin Rogers, who started the opener against Eastern Washington.
Any of the four could and will probably be in the mix, although Martell was reportedly seen in a walking boot during Tuesday's practice. While Arroyo hasn't officially named his starter, it seems that Brumfield is definitely in the driver's seat.
"The hope is he’s healthy enough to go, get back in there and pick up where he left off," Arroyo said of Brumfield, who started the second game against Arizona State before leaving due to injury.
"It’s a struggle," Arroyo continued of the QB issues. "That chemistry (with the offense) is something that takes time."
That's apparent when you consider that Brumfield, who is 11-of-26 for 177 yards, is the only quarterback that has engineered a touchdown drive so far this season. Collectively, UNLV quarterbacks are 29-for-61 (47.5 percent) with two interceptions and no touchdowns through the air.
Quarterback play isn't the only issue for the Rebels' impotent offense. They managed just 130 yards and seven first downs against Iowa State last week. It's no surprise that UNLV is last in the Mountain West and near the bottom of the entire FBS (tied for 113th) in scoring offense (15.3 ppg) and even worse nationally (126th) when it comes to throwing the ball (100.3 passing ypg).
And the running game isn’t much better, rolling up just 36 yards against Iowa State and relying solely on senior Charles Williams to carry the load. Even after facing a pair of tough defenses in the Cyclones and Sun Devils, Williams is still sixth in the conference in rushing with 254 yards on 60 carries (4.2 ypc).
The Rebels can't expect their offense to fare much better against a Fresno State defense that leads the Mountain West at 283.5 yards allowed per game.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Jake Haener is the new hero for the Bulldogs. The senior quarterback has been so good — especially in last week’s upset of host UCLA — that the mayor of Fresno gave him the keys to the city.
On Tuesday, Fresno mayor Jerry Dyer proclaimed that it’s "Fresno State Bulldog Football and Quarterback Jake Haener Week." Nice honor.
UCLA’s heralded head coach Chip Kelly praised Haener, as well, calling the QB that beat his charges a special player. All Haener did was keep answering the Bruins with scoring drives, including the game-winning, 75-yard march of six plays with 54 seconds left.
And the signal-caller did it while looking like his leg was going to fall off. How is that right hip anyway, Jake?
"We know he’s tough, right?" DeBoer told reporters of Haener, who was obviously hurt late in the game but gutted it out over multiple drives, including on the capper that saw him hit Jalen Cropper for the winning score with 14 seconds left. "We've seen that over the course of last year and this year. He's tough. When the pressure was great, he was at his best — and that’s what’s awesome."
In the prized win, Haener led Fresno State to 32 first downs — almost double that of UCLA — and 569 total yards.
He was 39-of-53 for 455 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. It was his third 300-yard effort in the first four games, and he currently leads the nation with 1,464 passing yards.
Weapon-wise, Haener’s got receivers Cropper — a junior with 14 catches for 141 yards against UCLA – leading the team with 347 yards and four touchdowns on 29 catches. There's also Josh Kelly, a sophomore who contributed 120 yards on eight receptions in the big win over the Bruins.
Haener has backfield mate Ronnie Rivers to lean on too. The senior running back had 21 carries for 136 yards and two scores last Saturday and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry for the year. Besides his effectiveness as a ball carrier, Rivers is a threat out of the backfield with 13 catches for 154 yards.
UNLV's defense, which ranks last in the Mountain West in total, scoring and passing defense, obviously has a lot to prepare for.
So how does UNLV stop Haener and Co.? Maybe if his hip continues to be an issue, that’ll help. But the Rebels never get lucky like that.
Plus the defense needs more than just luck to help turn the program’s fortunes around. Last week, UNLV allowed 493 yards, including 184 on the ground, against Iowa State. And Fresno State appears to be just as prolific. However, Arroyo is staying positive.
"I'm encouraged, I'm excited, I'm pissed off," Arroyo told the Las Vegas Sun. "I'm fired up, and I'm standing right at the front of the lines with these dudes. There's a resiliency about us. I'm excited, in a weird way, that our guys are upset about not beating two Top 25 teams back-to-back."
The Bulldogs lead the all-time series, 17-6. Included was a 40-27 win last November in Las Vegas. It won't be nearly that close this time around.
Prediction: Fresno State 48, UNLV 7
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