Fueled by career games from quarterback Jake Haener and wide receiver Jalen Cropper, the Fresno State Bulldogs shook off big plays early from Utah State to defeat the Aggies Saturday, 35-16.
Haener threw for 422 yards and four touchdowns on 29/38 passing, becoming the first Fresno State quarterback to eclipse the 400-yard mark since Derek Carr in 2013.
The Buchanan High grad Cropper benefited most from Haener airing it out, putting out a monster game with 10 receptions, 202 yards and three touchdown catches.
“Maybe one time in high school, but I don’t think I’ve thrown for 400 yards ever, so that’s cool,” Haener said postgame. “But we won, so that’s all that matters.”
Haener hardly wanted to put the attention on himself after his big game.
“It’s the game, sometimes I got to throw for a lot of yards and sometimes Ronnie [Rivers] has to run for a lot of yards,” Haener said. “It’s a team game, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Haener led a strong game-opening drive, but threw an interception in the red zone to Utah State safety Shaq Bond.
The next play: an 86-yard touchdown run by Aggies running back Jaylen Warren. Sophomore Evan Williams blocked the ensuing PAT to keep the Aggies at a 6-0 advantage.
Fresno State responded with a 13-play, 75-yard march down the field, including a successful 4th down conversion inside the red zone. Haener connected with Cropper for the first time on a nine-yard touchdown pass, giving the Bulldogs a 7-6 lead after a successful PAT.
The lead did not hold long. Utah State’s Savon Scarver returned the following kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, retaking the lead for the Aggies.
A series of plays early in the second quarter changed the complexion of the game. Warren broke off a 36-yard run for the Aggies, but fumbled at the end of the play. Evan Williams forced the turnover, and freshman Bralyn Lux recovered for the Bulldogs.
“It’s a never-give-up mentality,” said head coach Kalen DeBoer on the Williams forced fumble. “You give up the big play, but you keep fighting, scratching, and clawing, and all of a sudden, the momentum goes the other way after we make a big play.”
Four plays later, it was Cropper coming up big again, getting himself open for a 59-yard touchdown catch from Haener.
Later in the second quarter, Haener hit freshman receiver Josh Kelly for a 71-yard scoring strike. The San Joaquin Memorial product fooled a cornerback on a stop-and-go route to get free for his first career touchdown as a Bulldog.
Utah State drove all the way down to Fresno State’s two-yard line, but a botched snap and Kurtis Brown sack pushed the Aggies out of the red zone. Connor Coles drilled a 38-yard field goal to cut the Aggies’ deficit to five, 21-16.
Fresno State closed the first half with a four-yard touchdown run from senior running back Ronnie Rivers. With the score, Rivers tied Anthony Daigle for most career touchdowns in school history at 44.
After blitzing the Aggies with three touchdowns in the second quarter, the Bulldogs took a 28-16 lead into halftime.
Both teams were held scoreless for the entire third quarter and much of the fourth, until the Haener-Cropper connection came through a third time for a 44-yard touchdown pass.
Haener put on a passing clinic for most of Saturday, a performance that raised DeBoer’s confidence level in his junior quarterback.
“The confidence grows because of the experiences that you go through together,” DeBoer said.
“I was really pleased by the way he played. The first half, he came out slinging and put the ball where it needed to be,” DeBoer added.
On the ground, Rivers rushed for his eighth career 100-yard game, totaling 132 rushing yards on a season-high 25 carries. Rivers added six catches for 51 yards, as well.
Defensive end David Perales forced a fumble in the fourth quarter, making it three straight games the Sacramento State transfer has done so.
Of course, it meant Perales received the chance to don the “Money Cape” awarded to any Bulldog who forces or recovers a turnover.
“I love seeing David and any other D-lineman get it. It makes my joy,” said defensive lineman Kevin Atkins. “Seeing them put it on and celebrate, those are my guys, man.”
Fresno State (3-1) will celebrate its win before returning to the Central Valley to host San Jose State (3-0) next Saturday, November 21.