That wasn’t the long-awaited debut head coach Kalen DeBoer hoped for.
After finally getting to this point – a month and a half after the season was originally supposed to start because of the COVID-19 pandemic – DeBoer’s Bulldogs failed to find any consistency in the 34-19 loss to Hawaii.
The Bulldogs were gifted great field position off a Hawaii fumble on the opening kickoff, getting the ball at Hawaii’s 26-yard line, which quickly turned into a 7-0 lead after a Ronnie Rivers rushing touchdown.
But then the turnovers started. Quarterback Jake Haener threw an interception and fumbled on the next two drives, and the Bulldogs wouldn’t score again until late in the 2nd quarter.
“I think the guys played extremely hard,” DeBoer said after the game. “I can’t tell you how many times I had a guy that was cramping, or things like that. I just think we’re going to get better, because I can see the will to come back and play over and over and over in those guys that had those dings, had the cramps, whatever it might be.”
The turnovers – and ultimately the offensive consistency that doomed the ‘Dogs Saturday – starts and ends with Haener, who was also making his long-awaited debut. It did not go well: 17-31 for 289 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions and 1 fumble.
All said and done, it wasn’t very different from Jorge Reyna’s season-opener last year against USC. Reyna went 19-39 for 256 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception against the Trojans. Both quarterbacks relied far too much on their legs to make a play in their respective debuts: Reyna had 20 rushes for 88 yards, Haener had 13 tries for 37 yards.
However, there is one rather large difference between their games, besides the turnovers. Reyna went on the road to face USC in his first collegiate start and lost by 8. Haener lost at home to Hawaii by 15.
There were some bright spots, particularly on the deep ball – three completions went for over 30 yards, including one for 51 yards to Chris Coleman.
But take away the three deep balls and Haener’s stat line reads 14-28 for 160 yards.
“You can see what he’s capable of doing,” DeBoer said. “The arm talent’s there. The want-to is there. He’s a competitor, made a lot of big plays, but we don’t want to just run plays. We need to run an offense.”
The defense started off hot, especially with the pass rush. Defensive end Kwami Jones recorded 3 sacks in the first quarter, but – like the rest of the defense – he ran out of gas as the game progressed, which allowed Hawaii’s run game to pick up speed.
Hawaii finished with 323 yards on the ground, including a team-high 116 from quarterback Chevan Cordeiro.
“I kind of checked out in that second half,” Jones said. “I’ve got to be better hydrated in the next game for the next game.”
Obviously Fresno State won’t make the excuse that not having fans in Bulldog Stadium was the reason they lost – and it wasn’t, Fresno State would have lost this game even if there were 40,000 screaming in the stands.
But it’s a bad sign when you can hear Victor E’s bark ring loud and clear from the other side of the stadium.
Defensive Coordinator William Inge was adamant throughout fall camp with the motto “bring your own juice,” knowing that the ‘Dogs wouldn’t be able to draw on the five hundred or so cardboard cutouts lining the stands in the north end zone for energy.
Some players brought their own juice, safety and team captain Evan Williams for example. He was running around and motivating his teammates like nothing was different, but – as a whole – the team was flat.
Jones said he thought the stadium still felt like normal, even without fans.
“We got those cardboard cutouts cheering for us, so it was fine,” Jones said tongue-in-cheek. “We weren’t really worried about the fans. It felt the same. It’s still a game. We can’t really worry about where the fans are.”
It is undeniable, though – football isn’t a game meant to be played in front of an empty stadium. Fresno State has seven more of these on the schedule and can’t afford another flat performance.
Photo: Sam Marshall, Fresno State Athletics