It came down to the wire yet again, but Fresno State pulled off a crucial 34-32 win over Nevada on Saturday.
With this season providing its last-second thrills for the Bulldogs, head coach Kalen DeBoer opened his post game remarks with a touch of levity.
“I guess if you want to watch a game until the very last second, just come watch us play, right? I feel like every game comes down to the last drive,” DeBoer said.
It didn’t look like it was headed that way with a few minutes left in the game. Following a Wolfpack field goal, which brought the score within eight, Fresno State took over possession with 4:21 left on the clock and a chance to put the game on ice.
But the Bulldogs quickly went three and out. On Nevada’s ensuing possession, Fresno State defensive end David Perales stripped the ball from Wolfpack quarterback Carson Strong, which the ‘Dogs recovered.
However, the offense – which had performed at a high level for most of the game – once again went three and out, handing the ball back to the Wolfpack with 0:53 remaining.
Strong led the Wolfpack 90 yards down the field in eight plays to score a touchdown and pull within two with just a couple seconds left on the clock, which ironically was somewhat of a mirror performance of what the Bulldogs did to UCLA earlier in the season.
Notably, Nevada was forced to go for two to tie the game up because of a failed two-point conversion attempt in the third quarter. Without that, Fresno State would have been staring at overtime as the Wolfpack would have just needed to kick the extra point.
On the game-tying attempt, Strong hit receiver Romeo Doubs – who was a tough matchup for the ‘Dogs with 19 receptions for 203 yards and 1 touchdown – in the back of the end zone, but Fresno State’s Justin Houston forced Doubs out of bounds before he could give his feet down, preserving the lead for the ‘Dogs.
Nevada recovered an onside kick deep into Fresno State territory on the ensuing kickoff, providing even more drama for the 2021 season, but time expired, leaving the Bulldogs free of having to survive any more last-minute theatrics.
Even though the ending left something to be desired on both sides of the ball, DeBoer noted that Saturday’s performance was probably the most complete game the Bulldogs have played all season.
“Probably not how you want to draw it up at the end, but we got the stop,” DeBoer said. “It’s probably the best team game I think we played.”
That all around team effort started with the defense setting the tone in the first quarter, giving the offense time to get rolling.
Strong went 49-61 – a career-high – for 476 yards – also a career-high – and 4 touchdowns. But the defense played a bit of a “bend but don’t break” style and made the big plays when needed, such as a first quarter interception deep in Fresno State territory by cornerback DaRon Bland.
With Strong leading a potent passing attack, which came into the game ranked first in the conference in scoring, Fresno State’s gameplan involved many three-down defensive fronts and a dime package in the secondary, bringing additional defensive backs on the field to counter the spread offense.
The defensive gameplan excelled as the ‘Dogs were still able to create pressure while only rushing three for a large part of the game. Fresno State sacked Strong five times, a season-high for the Bulldogs.
“I just love the way they’re coming out and playing with confidence, understanding the gameplan and playing together and setting the tone early. It’s hard because offenses, they’re always going to show you a little wrinkle here and there. A game plan like we had tonight, we had a lot of three down rushes. That’s not something that we do a lot of,” DeBoer said.
“From the beginning of the week I thought the coaching staff did a nice job of committing to that being an additional part of our gameplan and putting in a lot of different looks that required different personnel to be in some different spots – extra defensive backs in the game, some young guys at times.
“In the end there was some times where those young guys got picked on a little bit, but they also came through with some big plays. I’m really proud of the defense. How we can go from one week playing a team like Wyoming and having to play smash-mouth and get after it up front, and then get against a team that is going to be wide open, spread and the ball’s flying all over the place and do a good job of keeping things under wraps.”
Fresno State’s offense took advantage of the defense’s performance and put together its most balanced game of the season. The ‘Dogs gained 205 yards on the ground and quarterback Jake Haener went 26-38 for 256 passing yards and 2 touchdowns.
Running back Ronnie Rivers broke off for a 64-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but as he crossed the goal line, the Nevada defender tried to tackle him and rolled over his leg, forcing him out for the rest of the game.
DeBoer did not immediately have an update on Rivers’ health after the game.
Jordan Mims stepped up as the running back in Rivers’ absence and had a career night: 23 rushes for 138 yards and 1 touchdown, as well as 4 receptions for 20 receiving yards and another touchdown.
When Mims was called upon, DeBoer knew the offense “wouldn’t skip a beat.”
“Jordan’s a guy that’s ready every single game. I promise you, the preparation he puts in, he was ready four weeks ago, he was ready two weeks ago and he showed he was ready today. I couldn’t be more proud of a guy. He popped off a couple big runs there after he kind of got put into that position tonight,” DeBoer said.
“Just went over and said, ‘Man, this is why you do the work. This is why you prepared.’ Him and Ronnie have such a cool relationship seeing them support each other. When Ronnie’s had big days Jordan’s been there for him, and tonight, I couldn’t have been more proud of both of them, because Jordan’s making the plays and Ronnie’s there supporting him.”
Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium, which included the jersey retirement ceremony for Lorenzo Neal, wasn’t too big for the Bulldogs.
With the conference loss to Hawaii earlier in the season, and with Nevada coming in with a 5-1 record, the Bulldogs were faced with a must-win game and did just that ahead of a showdown against undefeated San Diego State next week to claim the driver’s seat in the race to the Mountain West Championship Game.
“I think it’s honestly the first time I’ve felt us just play loose at home. I don’t know if it’s still a little bit of residue from last year, I just feel like tonight we were as loose as we’ve been. I felt like we practiced all week long, our backs were to the wall a little bit. The guys are smart, we didn’t sit and dwell on it as far as what the implications were if we came out on the wrong end of it,” DeBoer said.
“But the guys knew and they really just cut it loose out there tonight, I felt. I just feel like our team is completely fine with being in those close ones towards the end. Obviously we don’t want to be in that position, and we had opportunities to probably not put ourselves in that spot, but we’re completely comfortable and not panicking.”
Photo: Fresno State Athletics