Fresno State defense locks down Wyoming in shutout victory

Oct 16, 2021; Laramie, WY, USA; Fresno State Bulldogs defensive back LJ Early (27) against the Wyoming Cowboys at War Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-UW Media-Athletics

Fresno State’s defense dominated Wyoming in a 17-0 shutout victory at the War Memorial Stadium in Laramie. 

After a loss against Hawaii last week, the Bulldogs said it was a tough defeat to get over and it hung over the players’ heads throughout the bye week, so they came into Wyoming with something to prove. 

Instead of the ‘Dogs’ usual high-scoring, guns-blazing pass offense, the team proved it can not only win games but win in different ways – with defense. Although their offense receives the spotlight most of the season, this game saw defensive back Evan Williams shine.

As a result, the Bulldogs left with its second shutout victory of the season.

The 6-foot junior created multiple problems for Wyoming’s offense with two interceptions and also recorded a team-high of seven tackles on Saturday afternoon. . 

It was obvious that this was a game to remember for Williams as he came into the press conference laughing and hugging teammate Kevin Atkins. His energy cut through the screen as he talked about how he felt after his performance.

“Ecstatic, in one word. I mean I’m just excited. We’ve just put in so much time into this scheme and just bringing this defense together that when you see that our work kind of paid off, it feels great,” Williams said. “So yeah, seeing that come to fruition is something. I’m a little excited right now – a little jittery.”

Williams was a big part of the ‘Dogs’ defensive strategy to lock down the Cowboys rushes, especially quarterback Sean Chambers who likes to run the ball himself. 

In the middle of the second quarter, Wyoming was forced to pass more, and this change of playstyle seemed uncomfortable for the Cowboys because the ‘Dogs did not ease up on pass coverage.

Chambers threw the ball up the middle with 9:34 left of the second quarter, but the pass went low and right into the hands of Williams. He returned it for 14 yards and energized his team as it celebrated after the play.

Williams and the Bulldogs already had a 14-0 lead in the fourth quarter. But the defense showed its ability to hold a lead. After a punt by Fresno State’s Carson King, Chambers threw a short pass on the Cowboys first drive, and again Williams intercepted the ball.

Fresno State utilized the opportunity to increase the lead with a 41-yard field goal by Cesar Silva.

“It was really cool to see [Williams] rise to the occasion,” head coach Kalen DeBoer said. “Those tip balls and those moments happen so fast, and all that preparation, work he put in and confidence he has, really showed itself today… I’m super proud of him.” 

Despite a low-scoring game, the Bulldogs defense dominated with four interceptions, three sacks and one fumble recovery. They limited Wyoming’s total rushes to 128 yards, the second-lowest of the season.

This was a completely different win for Fresno State because this is the first time this season an opponent had more total yards, 271-259, but the ‘Dogs were still able to win.

Williams and Atkins both said the team knew it was going to be a tough defensive battle. In the first quarter, Fresno State received the ball but went nowhere in its first drive due to an aggressive Cowboy defense. 

“We knew it was going to be a dog fight. Like, we knew it was going to be gritty. I mean just a battle back-and-forth. They had a good defense,” Williams said. 

However, in Wyoming’s first drive of the game, Chambers rushed for a couple of yards but was quickly met by Bulldog Arron Mosby, who stripped the ball for his fourth forced fumble of the season. Bulldog Elijah Gates recovered the ball.

Fresno State capitalized on the moment to create an offensive spark. The rushing duo of Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims was the key for Saturday’s offense against Wyoming. 

Fresno State totaled 163 rushing yards, the second-highest of the season. Mims led with 78 yards and Rivers followed with 73. 

“We wanted to establish the run game. They gave us some favorable looks to run the ball,” quarterback Jake Haener said. “Every day is different, so whatever it takes to win is what we’re going to do, and today was run game. So we got it down, and I couldn’t be happier about it.”

Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers rushes through defenders against Wyoming on Saturday, Oct. 16, at the War Memorial Stadium. (Courtesy of Troy Babbitt/Wyoming Athletics)(Courtesy of Troy Babbitt/Wyoming Athletics)

After the Cowboy fumble, Rivers ran for 13 yards and Mims and Jalen Cropper notched 11 yards. In a one-yard pass to Josh Kelly from Haener, Cowboy Rome Weber received a penalty for targeting Kelly in an illegal tackle. Weber was ejected for the remainder of the game. 

Fresno State was now first-and-goal with two yards to the endzone.

Haener threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Juan Rodriguez for the first score of the game. The ‘Dogs led 7-0 with 6:57 left in the first. 

The second quarter was a back-and-forth battle, but both defensive teams kept their foes from scoring the entire quarter. Although it did not lead to a score in the second, Williams’  first interception foretold the ‘Dogs trend to score all their points after turnovers.

With 2:28 left of the third quarter, it looked to be a close game until the final minutes. Chambers attempted another short pass, but Bulldog linebacker Levelle Bailey tipped the ball into the hands of freshman Malachi Langley who returned it for 33 yards. 

The defense gave the offense six yards from the endzone. After a 3-yard rush from Rivers, Haener threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Cropper to give Fresno State a 14-0 lead. 

With a field goal by Silva in the fourth quarter, the ‘Dogs sealed the victory 17-0 against Wyoming. 

The ‘Dogs felt like they proved their skills and their message is clear, Atkins said.

“We proved that you know we can go in there and bang with anyone… We’ve had questions about our d-line, and you know I hope those are answered today,” he added.

Fresno State returns to Bulldog Stadium for the first time since Sept. 24 to take on the Nevada Wolfpack in its home game on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 4:30 p.m.

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