After nearly two years without seeing the Red Wave, Fresno State football finally got to play in front of its fans.
The fans woke up to a rare 11 a.m. start time and the Bulldogs endured the blazing Central Valley sun, where temperatures reached up to 120 degrees on the field. Even through the heat, Fresno State dominated its season opener against the UConn Huskies 45-0 for their first win of the season.
Here are four key takeaways from the Bulldogs’ opener of the 2021 season:
Offensive start not what they hoped for
The Bulldogs came out of the tunnel looking fired up and ready to play their first game in front of 26,000 fans in attendance. But when it was their time to be on the offensive side of the ball, they had a very slow start.
In the first quarter, Fresno State punted three straight times and only were able to convert one total first down for the entire quarter.
Fresno State’s starting quarterback Jake Haener couldn’t seem to find much of a rhythm to open the game. Haener only completed two passes for 6 yards on the first drive of the game resulting in a punt.
After running back Ronnie Rivers ran for a 16-yard gain on the first down of the second drive, Haener then followed that up with two passes that were complete for 4 yards and an incomplete pass on third down and six yards to go, leading to a second consecutive punt for the Bulldogs.
Their last drive of the quarter was the same result as the other two, with Haener having consecutive incomplete passes and then hitting wide receiver Keric Wheatfall for four yards on third and ten ending the drive on an ensuing punt.
The offense did start driving the ball down the field and scoring in the second quarter. With a four play 69-yard drive that started with a big completion from Haener to receiver Josh Kelly for 37-yards and was capped off with a nine yard touchdown pass from Haener to Washington transfer Ty Jones. Then, on a very quick one play drive Rivers took off on a catch and run from Haener for a 61 yard receiving touchdown.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs offense cannot afford to have that kind of a slow start in the first quarter with the quality of opponents they will face like Oregon and UCLA.
Defense looked every bit impressive in shutout win
Saturday was the first time since 2017 that the Bulldogs were able to complete a shutout, with the last game being against New Mexico winning that game 38-0.
Defensively, the Bulldogs looked dominant against UConn’s quarterback Jack Zergiotis and the Huskies offense.
The Bulldogs dominated in the first quarter when defensive end Arron Mosby sacked Zergiotis for a 10-yard loss, stripping him at the UConn 38 yard line. Mosby then recovered his own forced fumble for a 31 yard return touchdown to put the Dogs on the board 7-0 in the first quarter.
The 6-foot-4-inch senior, named Mountain West defensive player of the week, became the first Bulldog defensive end to convert a “scoop & score” since 2013 when Ejiro Ederaine accomplished the feat at San Diego State. Mosby looked like he belonged at the position creating such a momentous play to get the Bulldogs on the board in his first start at defensive end.
Third and fourth down stops were easy all game long for the defense throughout the 45-0 shutout. They held the Huskies to two out of 16 third-down conversion attempts.
New faces for the Dogs this season led the defense in tackles with UCLA transfer safety Elijah Gates and Boise State transfer linebacker Tyson Maeva who is also a captain for the defense, each contributing a team leading four tackles. Gates totaled three solo tackles and Maeva with two solo stops on the day.
Staying aggressive all game long, the Bulldogs plowed through the UConn’s offensive line and got to Zergiotis, sacking him four times on the day. It was the first game since playing Utah State back in 2020 where the Dogs were able to put the quarterback on the turf four times.
Forcing 11 punts, two turnovers on downs and Mosby creating that momentum changing fumble recovery for a touchdown in the first quarter all on just 14 possessions for the Huskies, the defense looked unbeatable and unfazed by the Huskies offense in the opener.
Rivers puts himself in the Bulldog history books
Four minutes to go in the first half, Rivers dashed off to a career best 61-yard catch and run touchdown from Haener, scoring his 45th career touchdown for the Dogs and becoming the all-time leader in program history. Not only did he break the all time touchdown record, but that very same play he became the all-time leader in career pass receptions for a running back with 118 and career receiving yards, as well as eclipsing 1,119 yards.
Yes, he is the top dog, but it wasn’t just Rivers contributing significant yards in the running game on Saturday.
Jordan Mims, Jordan Wilmore and Malik Sherrod all contributed to the 229 yards of total offense the running back group put up, scoring two touchdowns as a group in the beatdown as well.
Attention needs to be given to the other backs like Mims and Wilmore for their contributions in the opener.
Slow, but promising start for quarterbacks
Despite the criticisms of their slow start the offense was anything but slow in the second quarter to end the half.
Haener flipped the script in the second quarter offensively for the Bulldogs with 299 yards passing and three touchdowns through the air on 17 completed passes out of 23 attempts at halftime. Haener also spread the ball around to 8 different receivers in the first half.
Granted two of those touchdowns were short passes that turned into huge gains for touchdowns. The first touchdown was a short slant pass across the middle of the field to his favorite target Jalen Cropper. Cropper then burst down the sideline for the 86 yard touchdown. The other touchdown was a short pass to Rivers where he caught and jetted down the field for a 61 yard touchdown. Those two touchdowns accounted for 147 of Haener’s 299 yards in the first half.
Haener went down in the third quarter with an injury, allowing quarterback Logan Fife to lead the Dogs offense for the rest of the way. The redshirt freshman started off with an incomplete pass to receiver Erik Brooks. Four plays later, while the Bulldogs offense was down at the UConn 12 yard line looking to score, Fife threw a pass that was tipped and intercepted at the UConn three yard line, halting the momentum of a long drive for the Bulldogs.
Even though Fife had a very rocky start, he did manage to settle down and complete seven of 13 pass attempts for 51 yards. He also passed for his first career touchdown on a one yard toss play to senior tight end Raymond Pauwels Jr.
Although Fife was capable of handling the pressure of against UConn, he isn’t quite there yet to be the starting quarterback in a big game, but he definitely showed he is a formidable backup. Fife also showed that he can rush the ball running for 14 yards on four attempts.
The Bulldogs’ next game is against the Oregon Ducks at 11 a.m in Eugene.
Fresno State’s offense will have to weather the storm of a noisy crowd that Autzen Stadium prides itself on as one of the loudest home stadiums in college football.