Special teams woes end ‘Dogs hopes for MW title appearance

Fresno State sophomore receiver Jalen Cropper (5) returns a kick in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday, Dec. 5, at Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nevada. (Jesus Cano/The Collegian)

Fresno State’s hopes of a Mountain West championship appearance is no more.

It had been two football weeks since Fresno State played underneath the Saturday night lights after a confirmed case of COVID-19 put the team through quarantine. 

The Bulldogs would travel up north to play in Reno, Nevada, to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday, Dec. 5.

And with only one practice underneath their belt since returning from quarantine, the Bulldogs fell to the Wolf Pack, 37-26, knocking the Bulldogs out of the hunt for a Mountain West championship game.

A loss full of heartbreak, frustration, missing players and missed opportunities.

“I have a locker room full of guys that I know who came here expecting to win,” a disappointed head coach Kalen DeBoer said following the loss. “That’s the expectation we have every time we step on the football field. One thing I know is that we fought until the very end.”

The Wolf Pack has been known for playing spoiler when competing against the Bulldogs as of late. Last year, the Wolf Pack handed the Bulldogs a 35-28 loss at Bulldog Stadium — knocking them out of bowl eligibility. And tonight, for a much more significant stake, history repeated itself.

Fresno State had a big hole that they were going to struggle throughout the game no matter what. 

The Bulldogs played against Nevada without any of their kickers and starting long snapper. Fresno State relied on freshman wide receiver Mac Dalena for kicking field goals and backup sophomore punter Carson King for kickoffs and punts.

DeBoer did not state specifically what was the reasoning behind the absence of the special team’s personnel. 

“We had a lot of guys unavailable for a variety of things. It’s things that have nothing to do with COVID, and it’s some that have with contact tracing,” DeBoer said. “There’s some crazy situations that you could never even imagine that come up for why certain guys were not able to make the trip.”

This area proved to be the difference makers for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s game. In the first quarter, King fumbled the punt and also had a punt blocked on back-to-back drives, giving Nevada excellent field in Fresno State territory. 

Nevada did not waste any time as they scored off both mistakes from Fresno State’s special teams. On both scoring drives, a combined total of seven plays were attempted over 61 yards.

When the Bulldogs reached field-goal range, they elected to attempt a fourth-down conversion over kicking a field goal due to the lack of kickers. Not a single field goal was attempted outside of the point after.

“Every single day, there is a little something different. There are injuries involved, as well. We are way past double digits in the injury column,” DeBoer said.

A notable injury took place during the third quarter. Star running back Ronnie Rivers exited the game with an undisclosed injury.

The injury came after his big run, which was called back for an illegal block below the waist penalty. Rivers was seen in and out of the blue medical tent, jogging on the sideline throughout the end of the third quarter.

Both starting quarterbacks for the Bulldogs and the Wolf Pack had career nights. Sophomore Carson Strong threw for 350 yards for the fourth time this season. His fourth-quarter 85-yard touchdown was his longest touchdown of the season and the longest for his career.

Strong’s final totals were 23-for-29 for 354 passing yards, two interceptions and five throwing touchdowns.

Fresno State’s defensive line had a hard time getting to Strong all game as he was only sacked twice. The Bulldogs led the FBS in average sacks per game (5) coming into Saturday’s game.

Junior quarterback Jake Haener would improve on his career performance at Utah State as he threw for 485 yards against Nevada. Haener also had 17 rushing yards which when combined with his passing, tied David Carr for the fifth most total yards in a game ever by a Bulldog.

Carr’s performance took place back in 2001 when Fresno State played against Michigan State.

Haener’s final totals were 41-for-65 with two throwing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and no interceptions. 

“I’m feeling proud about the way we fight until the end. I don’t want us to ever have regrets when we walk off the football field knowing we had a little bit left in the tank,” DeBoer said.

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