Football warmup: Fresno State’s future, COVID-19 and Rivers rumor

Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener is poised to be the signal caller the Bulldogs need for future. (Vendila Yang/The Collegian)

While the 3-3 overall record and a deflating 49-39 defeat against New Mexico in the Bulldogs’ season finale left a sour taste in the mouths of many, the Fresno State football team has shown what the future may hold with glimpses of success throughout the season.

For one, Fresno State has finally shored up its quarterback woes as Jake Haener proved that he is worthy of leading the Bulldogs going into the 2021 season.

At the beginning of the 2020 season, there was speculation surrounding which quarterback would be the starter for the Bulldogs, Haener or Ben Wooldridge, with the quarterback controversy bleeding into the first few games of the season.

Often, it looked as though prospects of Haener being the clear cut starter were in jeopardy due to his inefficient play and inconsistency, as well as Wooldridge shining when given a chance.

The battle was neck and neck until the Nov. 14 game against Utah State, a breakout game of sorts for Haener as he threw for 422 yards with four touchdowns and a passer rating of nearly 200.0. This game was the first outing for Haener where he showcased his arm strength, poise in the pocket and composure, attributes that were absent at the beginning of the year.

Haener’s play against Utah State was the beginning of a three-game stretch where he threw for 942 yards, nine touchdowns compared to two interceptions on 95-of-146 passes, with a maddening 65 pass attempts in a Dec. 5 game against Nevada.  

Haener finished the season second in the Mountain West (MW) in passing touchdowns and passing yards behind MW Offensive Player of the Year Carson Strong of Nevada while playing two fewer games.

With a season under his belt, albeit a shortened one, Haener looks like a completely different player midway through December than at the beginning of August. And hopefully, he and Fresno State will have the opportunity to utilize spring ball and camp before the season, so the offense enters 2021 on the same page.

Talented weapons surround Haener at the receiver position with playmakers like Jalen Cropper, Josh Kelly and Keric Wheatfall, if he chooses to return for one more season, all showing that they can be No.1 wide receiver options for Haener.

Fresno State needs to do a better job at protecting Haener next season. The Bulldogs ranked 124 out of 127 in sacks allowed, allowing 24 sacks in just six games and ranking 104 in the nation in sack rate 8.7% according to Football Outsiders. And according to Pro Football Focus, through week 13, the Fresno State offensive line was ranked 88 in the nation and averaged 30.4% in pressure rate.

The lone bright spot on the offensive line was Syrus Tuitele, a second-team All-MW selection, but he is a senior, and there is no word on whether he plans to return in 2021.

So, for the offense to be as explosive as possible, the offensive line is one area it needs to improve. If Fresno State does that, they have a chance to compete for a championship.

Was it worth it?

For one, the 2020 football season was an attempt at a semblance of normalcy that the players, fans and college football has been desperately searching for in the catastrophic, COVID-19 pandemic-stricken year that 2020 turned out to be.

And for that, I applaud those involved for trying to bring to fruition a season as best as they could, but one has to ask, was it worth it?

For Fresno State, was it worth trying to participate in a shortened eight-game intra-conference MW season, where toward the end, it was like trying to screw in drywall while the foundation of your house was caving inward?

The Bulldogs only played six of the eight scheduled games, and during that stretch, like many other programs across the nation, they weren’t immune from the effects of COVID.

Fresno State was forced to cancel two key matchups due to COVID-19 positive tests and contact tracing within the program. The Nov. 21 game against San Jose State had to be canceled due to a confirmed case and the Nov. 27 game against San Diego State because of contact tracing from the week before.

In the return game against Nevada, Fresno State was without a couple of starters on offense, on the defensive line and almost all of its special team unit. For the special teams unit, this included three kickers, three long snappers and the starting punter.

That week, Fresno State didn’t confirm that any players had tested positive for COVID-19 or were out due to contact tracing. Still, given the likelihood of that many special teams’ players having that many injuries all at once, COVID-19-related issues or mandatory quarantines had to have played a factor.

For the rest of the MW, many schools were rife with COVID-19 issues, and during the season, there were nine games canceled due to the COVID-19 related problems.

The season wasn’t an entirely negative one for the Bulldogs. Despite not earning revenue from having fans in Bulldog Stadium, Fresno State supplemented that loss in revenue by playing televised games and receiving income from television contracts.

On top of that, Fresno State looked primed to compete in the MW next season as they have their quarterback of the future, a stout defensive line and deadly playmaking wide receiver core. All of which were able to hone their skills and gained much-needed experience because of the season.

So, I am aware that some will sarcastically say, “Many pro and college athletes passing away, it must be shut down,” or argue that “More people die from the flu than COVID.”

The argument was never, “If the schools follow through with the season, these players will die.” The debate has always been, “What if you follow through with the season? Could death be a possibility, or at the very least, could players suffer from long term effects?”

Fortunately, for now, the question of death was never answered, but we have yet to see what long-term effects COVID-19 could have on younger people.

We must all ask, “What is the worth of our action no matter how big or how small?”

Rivers’ Return

Earlier in the week, the MW announced its All-MW honors for the 2020 season, and to no one’s surprise, Bulldog running back Ronnie Rivers earned first-team honors following his record season.

For some, a surprise did come in Rivers fanning the flames to the rumors that he will be returning. When Fresno State Athletics tweeted out that Rivers was selected for first-team All-MW honors, Rivers retweeted the post saying, “To be continued…” following it up with a covering mouth emoji.

The tweet may be nothing. It may be something. But for Fresno State, it could be everything.

On August 21, the NCAA Division I board of directors voted to allow all fall sport student-athletes an additional year of eligibility due to COVID-19 circumstances surrounding the shortened 2020 college football season.

The NCAA extension means that if Rivers chooses to return to Fresno for another season, he can.

In his six games with Fresno State, Rivers proved to be one of the MW’s best running backs, rushing for 507 yards, 265 yards receiving and nine total (seven rushing and two receiving) touchdowns. 

However, Rivers’ stats happened in a five-game span, as he only totaled one rush attempt in Fresno State’s final game against New Mexico. A game that the Bulldogs sorely missed him in a week after suffering an injury in the Dec. 5 game against Nevada. 

Rivers also climbed up the Fresno State all-time career rushing touchdown list passing Bulldog legends like Lorenzo Neal and his father, Ron Rivers, where he’s tied at the No.3 spot with Anthony Daigle. He is also tied with Daigle for the No. 1 all-time career touchdown spot with 44.

All records Rivers could easily smash if he were to return for a full season.

Even if Rivers doesn’t duplicate his season’s production, his presence in the backfield will alleviate pressure on Haener and allow him to continue developing into a solid starting quarterback for the Bulldogs.

The organizers of the historic East-West Shrine Bowl also selected Rivers for his outstanding senior season, but due to COVID-19 precautions, the game won’t take place.

Of course, there is a decent amount of time between now and April 29, 2021, the date of the NFL draft, and if Rivers is hearing that his name could be called next spring, it may factor into a decision. 

But it is fun to speculate what Rivers can accomplish when given a full season schedule.

End of Season Awards

Offensive Player of the Year

Ronnie Rivers

2020 Stats:

ATT YDS AVG TD LNG REC YDS AVG TD LNG

100 507 5.1 7 32 27 265 9.8 2 35

Defensive Player of the Year

Kevin Atkins

2020 Stats:

TOT SOLO AST SACK

22 9 13 4.5

Freshman of the Year

Bralyn Lux

2020 Stats:

TOT SOLO AST SACK FF FR YDS INT YDS AVG TD LNG PD

30 27 3 0 1 1 0 1 24 24.0 0 24 4

Comeback Player of the Year

Jordan Mims

2020 Stats:

ATT YDS AVG TD LNG REC YDS AVG TD LNG

28 145 5.2 1 84 10 92 9.2 2 23

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