Fresno State (3-2) faces what could potentially be its last game of the 2020 season Saturday, when it travels to Las Vegas to meet the New Mexico Lobos (1-5).
Yes, you read that right: Fresno State vs New Mexico, in Las Vegas, courtesy of 2020.
Barring any schedule changes or added games, the Bulldogs and Lobos will close out this unprecedented regular season against each other. How fitting for two teams who have come face-to-face with the unique challenges brought by the unusual year that is 2020.
Last month, Fresno State canceled home games against San Jose State and San Diego State following a positive COVID-19 test within the program. Then last Saturday, the team played against Nevada without its starting placekicker, long snapper, and punter, as well as missing pieces on the offensive and defensive line. The absences were not entirely due to COVID-19 contact tracing, according to head coach Kalen DeBoer, but they were certainly affected by it.
New Mexico’s entire football season has been affected by COVID-19, with the Lobos unable to play any games in Albuquerque due to the state of New Mexico’s guidelines. As a result, the team has been living out of a Las Vegas hotel since Nov. 2, eating meals at an abandoned casino, holding team walk-throughs in an adjacent parking garage and using a ballroom as a weight room.
The Lobos have adopted Sam Boyd Stadium as their “home” stadium this season, and Saturday will be only the second time they play there this season. Nonetheless, New Mexico will try to bring normalcy to its final “home” game of the season by treating it as Senior Night. According to the Albuquerque Journal, pregame video board messages will be presented for New Mexico seniors, who may or may not be playing their final collegiate game since the 2020 season does not count against NCAA player eligibility.
That begs the question: how will Fresno State honor its own senior players, with the last scheduled game of the season on Saturday?
More importantly, who are the senior players that are staying and leaving for Fresno State?
“That is a loaded question,” DeBoer said in his weekly press conference. “I’d be lying if I told you I knew where situations were at, except for one or two of the guys, but other than that, I don’t know.”
Despite the uncertainty, DeBoer remained steadfast that the Bulldogs’ seniors will eventually receive their moment of recognition.
“It’s going to be hard, because some of the seniors might not be on the trip [to Las Vegas] with us either. There’s all those different elements: you’re only allowed to travel so many, some of them are dinged up,” added DeBoer. ”We have to find a way to celebrate them, those especially that are moving on. I’m hopeful that many of them will be around, and that we can celebrate that senior year next year with them.”
Onto Fresno State’s next opponent, New Mexico:
The task at hand for the Bulldogs is securing their fourth win of the season. They look to do it against a New Mexico team coming off its first win in 2020 against Wyoming, 17-16, last Saturday.
Under first-year head coach Danny Gonzales, the Lobos are working through a rebuilding year, yet that has not kept them from being competitive in games. They challenged Mountain West title contender Nevada, staying in the game until the final minutes before losing 27-20. That effort came a week after dropping a back-and-forth 39-33 battle in Hawaii, a game the Lobos led in the fourth quarter.
Coach DeBoer knows better than to take the Lobos’ record at face value, admitting that his upcoming opponent “has been on the wrong end of some close games.”
“If they get the right combination of players on the football field, they’re certainly dangerous,” said DeBoer.
The Bulldogs’ offense will see a defensive unit led by coordinator Rocky Long, the long-time New Mexico and San Diego State head coach who is known for his aggressive defenses.
A stalwart in the Lobos’ secondary, Jerrick Reed II has been one of Long’s most productive playmakers on defense this season. The junior safety leads the Mountain West with four interceptions, with two pass break-ups and a fumble recovery on the year as well.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener also needs to be aware of where New Mexico linebacker Brandon Shook lines up on the field. Shook played a pivotal role in the Lobos’ victory over Wyoming, forcing a Cowboy fumble on 2nd-and-goal in the 4th quarter and snagging the game-sealing interception. The senior linebacker’s clutch performance netted him Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Offensively, the Lobos are the third-lowest scoring team (19.7 points/game) in the conference, but boast the fourth-best rushing attack in the Mountain West, churning out 178.5 rushing yards per game. Bobby Cole spearheads the rushing attack with 410 yards on the ground this season, good for sixth in the Mountain West.
Injuries have left the quarterback room thin at New Mexico. Tevaka Tuitoi started the first two games this season before suffering a concussion against Hawaii, leading to Trae Hall starting the next two games before getting knocked out by a rib injury at Utah State. Connor Genal finished the game in Logan, but broke his wrist early in the game against Wyoming, leaving fifth-string walk-on freshman Isaiah Chavez to guide New Mexico to victory.
Chavez inspired Lobos fans with his second-half performance against the Cowboys, which included throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Bobby Cole. Chavez will start Saturday against Fresno State as the lone option at quarterback for Coach Gonzales’ squad.
- Senior running back Ronnie Rivers was declared “day-to-day” with a lower body injury, according to DeBoer at his weekly press conference.
- Kalen DeBoer on missing players vs. Nevada potentially returning Saturday: “There are going to be guys who return and guys who don’t for different reasons. There’s going to be some guys that we lost in the game on Saturday, some that I think we’ll get back and maybe a couple that won’t. I also think there will be some game-time decisions for one or two.”
- With their Mountain West title aspirations gone, the Bulldogs suddenly have a free date on Dec. 19 – and DeBoer is open to the idea of adding another game to the Bulldogs’ schedule: “Playing a game, even after this weekend, is something I would be in favor of for sure.” San Diego State, also eliminated from Mountain West title contention, are an option to play the Bulldogs in a makeup game. Yet as always in 2020, expect the unexpected.
Fresno State (3-2) at New Mexico (1-5)
Time: 7:30 P.M PST
Series record: Fresno State leads series all-time, 13-4