Quarterback Jake Haener had a game Saturday that Fresno State has not seen since the days of Derek Carr.
After an interception in the red zone on the first drive of the game, Haener rebounded to throw for 422 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Bulldogs beat Utah State 35-16 and improved to 3-1 halfway through the season.
Haener was the first Fresno State quarterback to throw for over 400 yards since Derek Carr in the 2013 Mountain West Championship game, which also happened to be against the Aggies.
“That’s pretty cool,” Haener said. “It’s great and everything. It’s cool to hear that and put a really good team win together with the rest of my guys. It’s just the game. Sometimes I’ve got to throw for a lot of yards, and sometimes Ronnie [Rivers has] got to run for a lot of yards. It’s a team game, and I wouldn’t be here without them. So it’s all the guys around me that are helping me make really good plays, and kind of going from there.”
For the first time all season the Bulldogs did not have to rely on Rivers, the star running back, to win. While Rivers had a great performance once again – 189 total yards and 1 touchdown – Haener stepped up and took full command of the offense, giving head coach Kalen DeBoer confidence moving forward.
“I think the confidence just grows because of the experiences that you go through together,” DeBoer said. “There’s moments of situational football that until we’ve done it together, it’s hard to talk through. You try to give those situations to him and the rest of the team throughout fall camp and each week in practice, but there’s so many of them that until it happens, sometimes you hadn’t had a chance to talk through it.
“It might be just throwing the football away. It might be the check he makes like the touchdown at the end. You do gain that confidence because you know what you’ve talked through with him and how he’ll carry that over, because it is so important to him… So I was really pleased with the way he played.”
It was a quarterback performance that Fresno State needed to see. Haener struggled in the Week 1 loss to Hawaii, but bounced back against Colorado State the following week before having a good but not great game against UNLV last week.
Even though backup Ben Wooldridge had received some playing time, DeBoer was adamant that while he wants two quarterbacks with game experience ready to go at all times, Haener is the starter and has the full support of the coaching staff.
Haener proved Saturday that he can be the reason why the Bulldogs win moving forward.
The main contributor and benefactor to Haener’s career day was wide receiver Jalen Cropper, who had a career-high 202 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. Just like Haener’s accomplishment had not been done in a Fresno State uniform in seven years, Cropper was the first receiver to post a 200-yard game since Davante Adams in 2013.
Some of Cropper’s yards came on fly sweeps where Haener would toss him the ball instead of handing it off – contributing to a small chunk of his receiving total – but he was most effective with explosive plays down the field.
Cropper had three receptions for over 30 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown in the 2nd quarter and a 44-yard touchdown in the 4th to seal the victory.
Haener and Cropper led the Bulldogs to explode for 28 points in the first half, although the unit only managed Cropper’s long touchdown in the second half.
Haener said the second half “wasn’t acceptable,” and DeBoer noted that despite the second-half struggles, the offensive line played its most consistent and solid game of the season.
The big-play struggles on defense continued once again, allowing an 86-yard touchdown run by Utah State on the Aggies’ first offensive play of the game. But the defense pulled together and only allowed the Aggies to grab one field goal the rest of the game.
Utah State’s other touchdown came on a kick return in the 1st quarter to give the Aggies an early 13-7.
Fresno State’s defensive line pressured Utah State quarterback Jason Shelley all game. Even though defensive end Kwami Jones was out due to an injury, the Bulldogs sacked Shelley six times.
“Very pleased with what they’re doing,” DeBoer said. “Getting those sacks is certainly big. When we get in those one-dimensional situations where you know it’s a pass, we can pin our ears back and come after him.”
That constant pressure kept Shelley off balance, as he only completed 9 of 24 pass attempts for 144 yards.
Now the Bulldogs advance to what looks to be the toughest part of the schedule. Fresno State returns home for two consecutive weeks against rivals San Jose State and San Diego State before a road trip to Nevada.
“We have goals, some lofty goals, just because that’s what Bulldog football expectations are all about, and we know that we have no room for error because of what happened in Week 1,” DeBoer said. “But I think we’re gaining some steam and gaining some confidence, and looking forward to this next week. Every game from here on out means something as we go on the closing stretch.”
Photo: Fresno State Athletics