Jake Haener was sitting in his apartment and watching game tape on the evening of November 19th when he heard the news.
A team-wide Zoom meeting was called to let players know they would not play San Jose State, their opponent in less than 48 hours, due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program and contact tracing that left the Bulldogs below the NCAA player minimums to compete.
Three days later, their next and final home game of the season was canceled as well, against San Diego State.
“Whenever there’s two big rivalry games that you’re looking forward to playing and things don’t work out for whatever reason, I think it’s disappointing,” said Haener. “The guys were disappointed and ready to compete. We had really good gameplans for both teams, and now we are going to have to wait until next year.”
The disappointment only leads to anticipation for Haener and the Bulldogs (3-1), who now prepare to get back on the field Saturday against Nevada (5-1).
And what a better way to return to game action than playing in a de facto elimination game in the Mountain West title race.
“You got to treat it like another game and not put too much pressure on the situation, but understand that it’s a big game and big-time players need to make big-time plays this week,” said Haener.
In order to reach the Mountain West title game, Fresno State needs to defeat Nevada and New Mexico on the road, and have either San Jose State lose out or lose to Nevada, or Boise State lose out. That scenario will be the simplest path for Fresno State.
Regardless of all the scenarios needed to play out outside of their games, the Bulldogs know wins are necessary in the next two weeks to give them a title shot. It all starts in Reno Saturday.
“I just try to focus on one day at a time, preparing one day at a time, and going at each game, one game at a time,” added Haener. “It comes down to what you can control, and you can’t control other people or other programs, so as long as we take care of business and do what we are capable of doing, we will put ourselves in good position to get there.”
The low-down on Fresno State’s next opponent, Nevada:
Waiting for the Bulldogs is a Nevada Wolfpack team that began the season 5-0, but lost a low-scoring affair at Hawaii, 24-21, last week. Nevada, led by fourth-year head coach Jay Norvell, controls its own destiny in the Mountain West title race and boasts the conference’s best passing attack and second-best offense in yards per game (behind Fresno State).
Get to know more about Nevada’s playmakers, with a spotlight on four key players to watch for the Wolfpack:
QB Carson Strong:
The Vacaville native leads the Mountain West in passing yards per game (328.8 yards/game) and touchdowns (16). The 6-foot-4 sophomore was named to the Davey O’Brien Quarterback Class of 2020 Tuesday, becoming a candidate to win the prestigious honor of top quarterback in the country. Fresno State fans may remember watching Strong pass for three touchdowns at Bulldog Stadium last year, as he led the upstart Wolfpack to a comeback 35-28 victory over Fresno State.
RB Toa Taua:
Scoring the game-winning touchdown for Nevada in the 2019 matchup was then-sophomore Toa Taua. Returning this year as the Wolfpack’s lead back, Taua comes off his best performance of the season last week at Hawaii, where the junior rushed for 131 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown. The brother of former Nevada running back Vai Taua (who is now Nevada’s running backs coach), Toa presents a threat with his speed and agility, along with an ability to bounce off tacklers with his strong 5-foot-9 frame.
WR Romeo Doubs:
Doubs ranks as the best wide receiver in the Mountain West in terms of yardage (131.3 yards/game) and touchdowns (9), the latter of which is good for eighth-best in the FBS. The Los Angeles native scored in all but one game this year, with a pair of three-TD performances against Utah State and New Mexico. The one game the junior wideout did not score in was last week against Hawaii, when he was limited to a single catch for 10 yards. Nonetheless, Doubs is a deep threat who Strong loves to throw to downfield; seven of Doubs’ nine touchdowns are for 30 yards or longer.
DT Dom Peterson:
Peterson was highly touted headed into 2020, landing on the preseason Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland Trophy watchlists. The 2019 All-Mountain West selection has backed it up with a team-leading seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks so far this season. Dom put on a dominating showing on national television against San Diego State on Nov. 21, recording three tackles for loss and two sacks. The performance earned Peterson MW Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Wolfpack with roots in Fresno County:
A pair of Nevada players originate from the Fresno/Clovis area: Freshman wide receiver Tory Horton played at Edison High and Washington Union before signing with Nevada as part of the Class of 2020. Junior linebacker Erick Kroll competed in football and track and field while at Clovis North High School, and he was named second team all-state and all-TRAC on the gridiron for the Broncos. Kroll’s father also played football at Fresno State.
- Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer is unsure if every Bulldog player will be cleared to play Saturday, as multiple players cannot return from quarantine until Thursday at the earliest. He also noted that there has not been a game this season, even prior to the positive test, where a player was not withheld due to the extended precautions the team takes in contact tracing, in addition to the protocol.
- With the 14-day quarantine period extending until Thursday and many key players still out until then, the Bulldogs will hold a modified practice throughout the week in preparation for Nevada.
- Backup QB Ben Wooldridge will see playing time against Nevada for at least one offensive series, according to DeBoer. The head coach pointed to the fact that Wooldridge’s presence raises starter Jake Haener’s level of play and preparation.
- Running back Ronnie Rivers remains one touchdown shy of breaking the all-time Fresno State record for touchdowns in a career. His seven rushing scores are tied for the Mountain West lead, and the senior averages the most all-purpose yards per game, with 176.8 yards/game.
- The word of the week for the Bulldogs is “Grit”. As explained by junior cornerback Wylan Free: “It means a ton of different things… coming in here with the challenges we’re facing and having to sit out two weeks and coming back and having to be focused.”
Fresno State can show true grit coming off its two week-long absence with a win at Nevada on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 P.M. PST, and the game will be televised on FS2. Fresno State leads the all-time series, 29-22-1.