Football Warmup: Ode to Rivers, quarterback controversy and the offense

Fresno State’s head coach Kalen Deboer celebrates with the team after winning the football game against Colorado State Rams on October 29, 2020, at Bulldog Stadium. (Vendila Yang/ The Collegian)

Run, Ronnie, run

At this point in Ronnie Rivers’ tenure with the Bulldogs, the play on words his last name provides may be a bit of a cliché. But for the sake of this comparison, I will wear it out one more time.

Of course, I am not a limnologist, but what I can remember from science class is that a river begins life as a tiny stream running down a mountain slope. And as time passes, with the help of snowfall and rain, that tiny stream begins to carve its own path and becomes a river.

In 2016, Rivers outshined Alabama’s Heisman hopeful Najee Harris in a game between Antioch and Freedom. Rivers scored seven touchdowns and 387 yards.

When Rivers arrived at Fresno State, he entered his collegiate career with an accumulation of statistics (rushing for 2,239 yards and scoring 33 touchdowns as a senior), accolades (finalists for Cal-Hi Sports’ Mr. Football State Player of the Year, 2016 Bay Valley League Most Valuable Player) and legacies (son of Fresno State legend Ron Rivers).

But as he stepped foot on campus, he would already be expected to fill a path created by his father 25 years prior. The comparisons were made by many, whether fairly or unfairly. Ronnie possesses his name, plays at his alma mater, dons his No. 20 and exemplifies his running style. 

Fans’ expectations were for him to be like his father. To be like a legend who was the all-time leading rusher in school history when he graduated with 3,473 yards to go along with 28 career touchdowns. The star who helped lead Fresno State to victory over USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, a former NFL running back and a Fresno State hall of famer.

Many players could succumb to that pressure, and many have, but Ronnie has always stayed the course and little by little carved out his own path as a Bulldog.

Ronnie earned his own accolades by being named second-team All-Mountain West (MW) last season. He earned his own championships by scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Boise State in the 2018 MW Championship. He earned his own significant bowl victory by being named MVP of the Las Vegas Bowl in a win over Arizona State in 2018.

And at this moment, he is rewriting the Fresno State record books and cementing himself as a Bulldog legend before our eyes.

Last week he moved past his dad on the career rushing touchdown list by scoring his 29th and is now fourth all-time with 31. This week he moved past legendary wide receiver and Green Bay Packer superstar Davante Adams in total career touchdowns with 39.

Ronnie is starting his 2020 senior campaign off strong. After helping lead the Bulldogs to victory over Colorado State yesterday, he ran for 95 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to go along with his 69 yards receiving and one receiving touchdown.

A 1,000-yard rushing season has eluded Ronnie during his time as a Bulldog and given that the shortened 2020 season doesn’t do him any favors this season. But, he looks to be just getting started and if he continues to be the impact player on this offense, he could reach that milestone and be considered for an MW Player of the Year award.

If that happens, he could be hearing his name called in April at the NFL draft  — following in his father’s professional footsteps  — but this time following his own course.

Haener fends off the competition, also beats Colorado State

Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener earned first Bulldog victory as a starter with a 38-17 win over Colorado State on Thursday.

Haener shined in the victory throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns on 22 of 32 attempts. More importantly, he avoided turning the ball over by making decisive decisions, extending plays with his feet and not forcing anything.

This was a stark contrast to the previous week against Hawai’i where at times Haener seemed flustered as if he felt like he had to make every play. He finished that game 17 for 31, threw three interceptions and a loss.

“I think that being my first game was a rough one, a rough one for the team because we have such high expectations,” Haener said. “But I think it’s about how you respond and how you do the next game.”

But his first victory was without a bit of controversy. 

On their opening drive of the second quarter, back-up quarterback Ben Woolridge stepped onto the field and marched to offense down the field. 

This came after Haener went 4-for-5 with an opening drive touchdown and a punt on the series after.

In the postgame news conference, Bulldog head coach Kalen DeBoer said that the decision to have Woolridge at quarterback was predetermined.

“Ben knows the offense as well as anyone,” DeBoer said. “That was designed to make sure he got an opportunity. He came in firing right away. We didn’t lose a beat.”

And Woolridge proved, at least for one drive, that he was capable of leading the Bulldogs at quarterback. He led the ‘Dogs from their own 23-yard line into the Colorado State red zone, while completing three of five passes in the process.

He connected with wide receiver Keric Wheatfall for a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab that was ultimately overturned, forcing Fresno State to settle for a field goal.

For a moment, it seemed as though there would be a quarterback by committee, and with Woolridge showing what he is capable of making things interesting this would be Fresno State’s strategy going forward.

But ultimately, DeBoer stayed with his hot-handed starter and that is what led him to his first career victory as Bulldog head coach.

“[Haener] never flinched, he never wavered,” DeBoer said. “He really stayed in there and stepped up in a great way this week.”

There wasn’t any indication if the experiment will follow Fresno State to Las Vegas next Saturday as they face UNLV.

So for now, Haener avoids being usurped by Woolridge and proves that he could lead the Bulldog offense going forward.

Bulldog pass catchers are a powder keg

Going into 2019, the Fresno State receiving corp was one of the biggest areas of concern for the ‘Dogs. They had lost veteran talent at the position.

Although the Bulldogs gained transfers and incoming freshmen who were just as explosive and talented in their own right, they were young and inexperienced. This was one, of many, reasons why the Fresno State offense failed to duplicate what they had done a year prior.

With a year under their belt, wide receiver is the strongest position group the Bulldogs have and the key to Fresno State’s success in 2020.

Wheatfall is emerging as a huge target; the 6-foot-2 senior has eight receptions and 160 yards on the season so far. 

Against Colorado State, Wheatfall showed off his pass catching ability. First, it was the overturned one-handed touchdown, and then followed that up in the third quarter where he made a spectacular 38-yard catch on a tough Rams defense.

Both catches deserved a degree of difficulty score of nine.

The Central Valley products have both been pivotal to the Fresno State offense, with Jalen Cropper trying to replicate last year’s success as a true freshman. Josh Kelly even showed he is just as talented as his 2019 recruiting classmate.

Concerns for Cropper arose following his lack of involvement in the offense and the relatively quiet game he had against Hawai’i (two receptions for 21 yards). Yesterday’s performance (42 yards and one touchdown on four receptions and 15 yards on two carries) may stop the alarm from ringing.

But at this point, this is not an emergency, it is just a drill. Cropper’s speed is still present, along with his elusiveness, big-play potential and ability to force the defense to focus on him and open up the field for his teammates.

With the weapons that the Bulldogs have on offense — the aforementioned Rivers, Wheatfall and Kelly — Cropper doesn’t have to be as crucial of a component to the Bulldogs offensive success as he was last season.

Does that mean Cropper doesn’t have a role in this offense and isn’t the player he was last season? No. 

Is Cropper’s presence on the field still a problem for opposing defenses? Duh.

You love to see it

Running back Jordan Mims played his first game against Hawai’i after redshirting all of the 2019 season due to injury. Against Colorado State, he scored his first touchdown in 705 days.

Congratulations.

After not being able to follow the success he had in 2018 — where he showed signs of being an impact player for Fresno State — Mims is now picking up where he left off.

Mims was outstanding, catching the ball out of the backfield and crushing defenders in open space.

He blasted a Rams defender early in the game after catching a 23-yard pass. His touchdown came in the third quarter on a swing route and he went 15-yards untouched into the end zone.

With Rivers, Fresno State now has an exciting one-two punch out of the backfield.

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