After sitting out the last two weeks due to COVID-19, Fresno State’s coaches were concerned the Bulldogs would be rusty when they took the field against Nevada.
Rust ended up not being a factor in the 37-26 loss to the Wolfpack Saturday night. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head once again.
Fresno State was without almost all of their specialists, and head coach Kalen DeBoer said the team had one practice to prepare for that. Although DeBoer would not explicitly say those players were out due to COVID-19 and the ensuing contact tracing, the fact that the majority of a group became unavailable with only one practice remaining points to that being the issue.
“We had one practice,” DeBoer said. “It’s that simple. We had one practice. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it is what it is. Our guys didn’t flinch, and some of those guys were excited about their opportunity. And they gave it everything they could, and that’s all I was asking from them. I’m proud of the efforts. Obviously things didn’t work out in some of those areas, but that’s certainly understandable.”
The only specialist who played was backup punter Carson King. He struggled to get off two punts in the first quarter, which resulted in Nevada taking possession with excellent field position both times and scoring two touchdowns.
King didn’t attempt another punt the rest of the game. Instead, quarterback Jake Haener punted twice and the Bulldogs went for it on fourth down six other times.
To top the special teams situation off, freshman wide receiver Mac Dalena had to step in at kicker. The Bulldogs did not attempt any field goals, but Dalena did make 2 of 4 extra point attempts.
“Mac got out there, and it was no doubt that he was the guy,” DeBoer said. “It was very quick to see that he should be the guy out there to kick, and I thought he did a great job. He just missed the ones he kicked. Considering how much time he had to practice, I give him a lot of credit – talented in a lot of ways, new growth moments. That’s not what he’s going to be doing for years to come.”
Outside of the special teams chaos, the game itself saw Fresno State dominate in the box score but fail to capitalize in the end.
Haener threw 65 passes, completing 41 of them for 485 yards and two touchdowns. He also laid out for a touchdown run on fourth down in the 2nd quarter. A Fresno State quarterback had not attempted even 50 passes in a game since Brian Burrell in 2014.
On the other sideline, Nevada quarterback Carson Strong – the Mountain West’s top passer – tossed 5 touchdowns, three of them to Fresno native and Washington Union graduate Tory Horton.
Running back Ronnie Rivers, Fresno State’s top offensive weapon, had a long touchdown run in the third quarter called back because of a penalty on an illegal block by Haener of all people. Rivers sustained an injury as he pounded his way into the end zone and did not return. DeBoer did not have a status update after the game.
The Bulldogs and Wolfpack also combined for 5 total turnovers.
Ultimately it was a weird game that saw Fresno State dominate the box score but come short overall. The Bulldogs held the time of possession advantage 35:01 compared to 24:59 for Nevada. Fresno State also ran 105 plays while Nevada ran 61.
The Bulldogs led the first down margin 30 to 14, and they put up 599 yards of total offense compared to 416 for Nevada.
Even with all the statistical prowess, the special teams blunders early put the ‘Dogs in a tough situation. Combine that with the turnovers, several dropped passes and an inability to stop Strong and Nevada’s offense, and Fresno State simply could not put together a winning formula.
But at least the Bulldogs managed to play again, albeit short-handed.
With the loss Fresno State drops to 3-2 and does not have a path to the Mountain West Championship game anymore. The Bulldogs will take on New Mexico (1-5) next week, although that game will likely be played in Las Vegas because the Lobos have temporarily set up shop at Sam Boyd Stadium since local COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico have pushed them out of the state.
Photo: Fresno State Athletics