10:00 PM EST, CBS Sports – Line: Fresno State -31.5, Over/Under: 58.5
Mountain West residents traveling in two very different directions clash tonight in the Valley, as the (No. 22) Fresno State Bulldogs play host to the struggling UNLV Rebels, from Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, California. If there was ever a time NOT to institute a total rebuild, many would point to the obvious choice of doing so during a pandemic, but we have the benefit of hindsight unlike Marcus Arroyo, who arrived to Sin City with designs of completely remaking UNLV (0-3, 0-0 in MWC) in his image. Without a proper Offseason including Spring Practices to implement his schemes and to evaluate his players, the 41-year old was forced to do so throughout the abridged 2020 campaign, which was nothing short of disastrous as the Rebels failed to earn a single victory in six tries. As has been the case for years, the Defense was clearly they’re most prominent issue, as Nevada-Las Vegas yielded a whopping 38.0 points per game on a rather generous 7.16 yards per play, both of which ranked last in the Mountain West Conference. Furthermore, their 3.12 points allowed per possession ranked 119th in the FBS, parlaying to a score permitted on 53.4% of their opponents’ drives. So with that said, there is nowhere to go but up in 2021, though after three games the Rebels are still in search of their first victory. Then again, the schedule has done them ZERO favors at this point; following a narrow thriller at home against Eastern Washington (33-35) that required two overtimes to decide a victor, Arroyo’s charges saw a considerable climb in competition as they battled back-to-back ranked opponents in the form of (No. 23) Arizona State (10-37) and (No. 14) Iowa State (3-48), who together hammered them by a combined SEVENTY-TWO points. Clearly, he felt that a baptism by fire was necessary for a Defense returning ten starters from last year’s unit to grow, though the last few weeks have resembled more of a bloodbath than anything; UNLV has been throttled for 40.0 points per game (124th Overall) on a staggering 476.3 total yards thus far. In fact, throughout this nine-game losing streak they’ve been outscored by a whopping 198 points, or in other words 22.0 points per contest. With that said, Arroyo has been hard at work on both the recruiting trail and the transfer portal, adding talent from bigger programs where he can; some scouting services have their current recruiting class marked as second within the conference, while the likes of (Defensive End) Connor Murphy (11 TKL, 1.5 TFL) and (Tailback) Jayvaun Wilson (7 CAR, 29 YDS, 4.1 Y/A, 0 TD) transferred from USC and Oregon respectively. (Junior Quarterback) Justin Rogers (50.0%, 30 YDS, 1.9 Y/A, 0 TD, 0 INT) also transferred to Vegas, arriving from TCU where he spent the majority of the 2018 campaign holding a clipboard. Rogers is one of four Quarterbacks whom Arroyo has granted an opportunity to make an impression, though none have done anything in particular to separate themselves. The former Horned Frog started the Season Opener against Eastern Washington, but after completing 7-of-11 passes for just twenty-three yards was replaced midway through the Third Quarter in favor of (Redshirt Freshman) Doug Brumfield (42.3%, 177 YDS, 6.8 Y/A, 0 TD, 1 INT), who handled matters marginally better (5-of-12, 117 YDS, 1 INT), rushing for twenty-seven yards and a touchdown. Brumfield would get the nod the following week at Arizona State, and while he once again found success on the ground with forty-three yards and another score, his struggles as a passer (6-of-14, 60 YDS) led to his benching at home against the Cyclones. Both (Freshman) Cameron Friel (61.5%, 67 YDS, 5.2 Y/A, 0 TD, 1 INT) and (Miami Transfer) Tate Martel (33.3%, 27 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 0 TD, 0 INT) would see action last weekend, though (you’ll notice a theme here) both struggled in their time on the gridiron; Friel was 8-of-13 for sixty-seven yards and an interception, while Martel was a mere 2-of-6 for twenty-seven yards. At this point, it’s clear that Arroyo (a former Quarterback himself) is looking to see if any of this quartet of passers has the potential to be the starter moving forward, which is important now that they’re embarking on the MWC portion of their schedule. Whomever manages to keep the job does have some quality to work with though, particularly in the form of (Senior Tailback) Charles Williams (59 CAR, 249 YDS, 4.2 Y/A, 2 TD) and (Sophomore Receiver) Kyle Williams (9 REC, 117 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 0 TD), with the former earning First Team All-MWC honors in 2019 on the strength of 1,257 yards and eleven touchdowns, while the latter was voted MWC Freshman of the Year last season. In his sixth (and final) year of eligibility at UNLV, Williams will be looking to improve upon a dreadful showing against Iowa State last weekend, in which he was relegated to just forty-two yards on nineteen carries. When the Rebels hosted the Bulldogs last year, a 40-27 shootout that was tied at 27-27 heading into the final stanza, the upperclassman totaled eighty-nine yards and a touchdown on twenty-seven carries. This program has lost three consecutive meetings in this series, and none of them have been particularly close, for they’ve been decided by a sizable margin of eighty-seven points.
Meanwhile, the Rebels weren’t the only program to attempt to turn the page heading into 2020, for Fresno State (3-1, 0-0 in MWC) has proved to be far more successful in their endeavor despite a wealth of adversity thrown at them. Indeed, while many programs were adversely effected by the influences of the pandemic, the Bulldogs were hit harder than most; between March 12th and September 25th, (Head Coach) Kalen DeBoer was restricted from holding any in-person team activities, keeping the first-year skipper from properly implementing his schemes and evaluating his personnel, and following a surprising 3-1 start, back-to-back contests were canceled due to COVID-19 contact tracing within the program, robbing them of the momentum that they had built for themselves. From that point, it was difficult for DeBoer’s charges to pick the ball back up, as they ended the campaign with a mediocre 3-3 record. With that said, there were plenty of positive signs to be found over that particular stretch, including the emergence of (Senior Quarterback) Jake Haener (73.6%, 1,464 YDS, 10.2 Y/A, 10 TD, 1 INT), who stamped his status as the team’s starting signal-caller; a transfer from Washington, he completed 64.7% of his passing attempts for 2,021 yards, with fourteen touchdowns and five interceptions, including nine scores over the final three games. Easily the most productive passer returning to the Mountain West, Haener averaged a prolific 336.8 yards through the air, and through four games thus far it’s clear that he and the rest of the Offense have carried that momentum over into 2021; completing a career-high 73.6% of his passes, the upperclassman is averaging a healthy 10.2 yards per attempt with ten touchdown strikes already in comparison to just one interception. Where his opponent tonight has struggled against ranked opposition in recent weeks, Haener and the Bulldogs have been nothing short of impressive against such competition, giving (No. 3) Oregon everything they could handle in a spirited 24-31 loss in Eugene, while taking down (No. 24) UCLA in a 43-37 shootout last weekend. Mind you, the Ducks would go into Columbus and upset (former No. 3) Ohio State a week after their scare against the ‘Dogs, while the Bruins were coming off a 38-27 upset of (former No. 16) LSU the week beforehand. Indeed, somewhere (former Head Coach) Pat Hill must be smiling, for it appears that DeBoer has managed to find a happy medium between the high-scoring vertical attack he helped cultivate at Indiana with that old Fresno State physical mentality of playing anyone anywhere. In an affair that featured seven lead changes, seventy-seven points, and 964 total yards, it was the Bulldogs who looked like the team that should have been ranked, as they eviscerated UCLA’s Defense to the tune of 569 yards on thirty-two first downs, overcoming three turnovers on the strength of Haener’s aerial assault, with the Senior completing 39-of-53 passes for 455 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The Fourth Quarter in particular was a wild one, folks, featuring five touchdowns, including the final score, which came courtesy of who else but Haener; starting from his own 25-yard line, he drove the visiting side seventy-five yards downfield in just six plays, hitting (Junior Receiver) Jalen Cropper (29 REC, 347 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 4 TD) for a 13-yard touchdown with just fourteen seconds left to play, effectively ending a wild night in Pasadena. Cropper finished the affair with fourteen receptions for 141 yards and that aforementioned game-winner, while (fellow Wideout) Josh Kelly (19 REC, 373 YDS, 19.6 Y/R, 2 TD) hauled in eight passes for another 120 yards. (Senior Tailback) Ronnie Rivers (75 TCH, 452 YDS, 6.0 Y/T, 4 TD), who is one of a whopping FOURTEEN players that took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, rushed for 136 yards and a pair of scores on twenty-one carries. That victory propelled DeBoer’s troops to No. 22 in the AP Poll, the highest ranking that the school has enjoyed since rising as high as sixteenth back in 2018. Needless to say, you can bet that Fresno State are battle-tested heading into league play, which is certainly bad news for the opponent tonight; when they met last season, the Bulldogs pulled away late in a 40-27 victory in Las Vegas, outscoring the Rebels 16-0 in the Fourth Quarter after the matchup was squared away at 27-27 following the third period. Rivers had himself a game that afternoon, racking up a whopping 232 yards from scrimmage and a career-high four touchdowns on twenty-five touches, while Haener made plenty of plays with his legs for a change, rushing for seventy-nine yards and another score on seven attempts. In a contest in which both teams totaled over 400 yards of Offense, it was the visitor’s Defense that proved decisive, amassing six sacks and forcing three crucial turnovers, two of which were interceptions. Applying pressure is something that this unit is certainly good at, totaling twenty-five sacks in six games last season, parlaying to a stellar 12.4% sack percentage, which wasn’t just the best in the Mountain West, but good for second in the FBS. Did we mention that they have nine returning starters from that group?