Despite a difficult loss to Colorado State, Fresno State’s running game came alive on Saturday in a way that hasn’t happened all season.
Running back Ronnie Rivers looked different, and his performance called back to what he did in the Las Vegas Bowl last season (212 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns).
While Rivers didn’t repeat that career-high performance, he did break the century mark for the first time this year and was a consistent force that the Bulldogs haven’t had in the run game up to this point. He finished with 146 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns, statistically the second-best game of his career.
This week he faces Hawaii, one of the teams that he’s had success against before. Last year Rivers rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown.
The Bulldogs have an opportunity to build on that success with the new looks they showed in the loss to Colorado State. At the center of that was freshman wide receiver Jalen Cropper, who’s featured as a weapon in the run game since the first play of the season.
“He’s just a different kid,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. “He just naturally has that gift for putting his foot in the ground and has really good vision. It’s not just that he’s fast – the vision and ability to get vertical is difficult to replicate, and he’s very good at that, very natural.”
He’s had two very big plays so far this season: a 79-yard touchdown run against New Mexico State and an 82-yard run against UNLV.
“You really have to wait to see if the tight ends get their blocks, and you’ve just got to base your cut off them,” Cropper said. “Once you see a hole, you have to take it because everything in college closes very fast.”
Although Cropper didn’t have a breakout run last week – he only had 13 yards on two attempts – his ability to hit his hole fast and beat the defense is having an impact on the offense as a whole, even when he’s not racking up yards.
It was evident against Colorado State. On a couple of Rivers’ runs, the Bulldogs ran Cropper in motion on a fake fly sweep to confuse the defense with misdirection and open up space between the tackles.
“This last game was the most where you could see,” Grubb said. “It was going to be difficult to just run straight fly sweep because they were so locked into Jalen, and when they’re that tied into him it can be pretty difficult to get him the ball.”
Even though defenses are keyed into Cropper, it’s not a bad thing for Fresno State.
“Cropper provides yardage in different ways that people don’t necessarily see in a stat book – where he’s gaining enough attention to where all of a sudden you’re getting better box numbers because they’re so concerned about him on the fly,” Grubb said. “We’re starting to reap that a little bit, and even the little screen he caught – he’s faking reverse motion and goes back out, we throw a screen to him back to the left and almost scores on that. There’s been a lot of payoff with that for Jalen for sure.”
After seeing the misdirection in full effect against Colorado State, Cropper sees how the Bulldogs will continue to grow with the play and expand offense’s potential.
“Doing that fly sweep, it’s going to open up a lot of plays for either the receivers or the running backs or the quarterbacks,” Cropper said. “I think just through the whole season as we keep going and progressing through the season, just looking forward to everything – all the running plays, run game opening up.”
Rivers added, “He’s definitely a threat for defenses. Him giving that fake definitely gets some defenders moving. He was definitely a factor in some of those runs.”
While Cropper is second on the team with 265 rushing yards, he only has 54 receiving yards. But that’s mostly attributed to the deep wide receiver group and the challenge of spreading the ball around, Grubb said.
“Getting it to Ronnie and getting it to [Josh] Hokit and getting it to all those guys, it can be difficult to get everybody the football,” Grubb said. “But you’re always looking for the guy that’s winning the most, and right now Jalen’s one of those guys. I think there’ll be a couple long shots in the upcoming weeks that we’ll see. We rep those in practice all the time, it’s not like if it happens that would be something new to us.”