Mountain West football

Nevada, Fresno have same focus: How do you stop the QB?

Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener against Hawaii on Oct. 2, 2021, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener against Hawaii on Oct. 2, 2021, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

The Fresno State Bulldogs are hoping quarterback Carson Strong is missing from the Nevada Wolf Pack lineup this Saturday.
“I’m assuming he’ll have a hell of a chance of playing on Sundays (in the NFL) someday,” Fresno State defensive coordinator William Inge said this week with a smile. “If the draft was Thursday, I’d love it.”
Inge, of course, knows the NFL draft is next April and not two days before this Saturday’s (4 p.m., FS2) matchup with the Wolf Pack at Bulldog Stadium.
“I’m hoping he’ll have tendonitis coming up here this weekend,” the Bulldogs coordinator said, flashing another smile.
Inge certainly doesn’t want to see any harm come Strong’s way. But he also doesn’t want any ill will to come to his Bulldogs defense, which must find a way to defend against the Wolf Pack quarterback.
“He’s definitely one of the best kids we’ve seen throw the football,” said Inge, a former Iowa Hawkeyes player (1993-96) like Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell (1982-85).
Norvell has his own concerns this weekend trying to figure out a way to stop an explosive quarterback. Fresno State’s Jake Haener, after all, torched the Wolf Pack for 485 yards, 41 completions and two touchdowns in a 37-26 Nevada victory last season at Mackay Stadium.
“Haener is really one of the best players we’ll play against,” Norvell said.
The Pack-Bulldogs’ game could produce one of the best passing shows in college football this season. Haener has completed 179-of-264 passes this year for 2,326 yards and 20 touchdowns with six interceptions while Strong, in one fewer game, is 167-of-246 for 1,990 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. The top two quarterbacks in the Mountain West are separated by about half a yard per game this year with Haener at 332.3 and Strong at 331.7. The two combined for 64 completions, 839 yards and seven touchdowns last year against each other at Mackay Stadium.
“With the ball being thrown up in the air by two amazing quarterbacks, it’s something hard to stop,” Fresno State head coach Kelen DeBoer said. “You just try to slow them down the best you can.”
Both Strong and Haener are surrounded by plenty of weapons. Haener has running back Ronnie Rivers (493 yards) and receivers Jalen Cropper (48 catches, 546 yards, 10 touchdowns), Keric Wheatfield (18-325-1), Zane Pope (15-293-3) and Josh Kelly (30-462-2). Rivers is also one of the top pass-catching backs in the conference with 25 catches, 254 yards and a touchdown).
Strong will target Cole Turner (34 catches, 403 yards, four touchdowns), Romeo Doubs (26-387-2), Melquan Stovall (28-365-1), Justin Lockhart (20-275-1) and Tory Horton (16-208-1). He also can give the ball to running backs Toa Taua (403 yards and four scores) and Devonte Lee (178-3).
It’s no surprise the Bulldogs (35.9 points a game) and the Wolf Pack (36.3) are the top two scoring teams in the Mountain West. Fresno State has won 29 of the 52 games in the rivalry (one tie), though Nevada has won the last two and eight of the last 13 dating back to 2008 when both teams were in the Western Athletic Conference.
“Obviously, we’re playing a different type of team this week,” said Norvell, whose Pack is on a three-game winning streak after beating Boise State, New Mexico State and Hawaii. “Haener is a real operator.”
The Wolf Pack saw Haener up close a year ago. The Pack won the game in front of an empty Mackay Stadium because of COVID restrictions but Haener and the Bulldogs had nine drives of six plays of longer, controlled the ball for 35 minutes, and out-gained the Pack (485-354) and had more first downs (30-14).
The Bulldogs, despite the loss, played remarkably well considering it was their first game in three weeks because of COVID-19 complications.
“We took the bus over to the game and I was wondering how we were going to put a team on the field,” DeBoer said. “Those were the longest three weeks of my life. That Thursday before the game was the longest day of my life with all the things we were going through. But I saw a fight in our team that I was proud of. We weren’t good enough to win, we didn’t have enough of the right guys on the football field. But our guys fought. It makes you realize what you have this week and where we’re at now.”
The Wolf Pack allows 244.3 passing yards a game. Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier threw for 388 yards and four touchdowns against Nevada while New Mexico State’s Jonah Johnson had 425 yards and three touchdowns. The Pack, though, won both games, as it did against Haener and Fresno State last year. The Wolf Pack, in fact, has a record of 6-3 when allowing opposing teams to pass for 300 or more yards since the start of the 2018 season. That is in stark contrast to Norvell’s first season at Nevada in 2017 when the Pack was 0-5.
“We’ve gotten better in the secondary,” Norvell said.
Haener, though, will be a difficult test.
“He has the ability to move out of the pocket,” Norvell said of Haener. “He’s kind of like a middle infielder in baseball. He can throw the ball sidearm and throw in between bodies. He can throw from a lot of different platforms.”
Fresno State, which upset UCLA 40-37 earlier this year and narrowly lost (31-24) to Oregon, had Haener play more conservatively last week in a 17-0 victory over Wyoming. The Bulldogs’ quarterback was just 15-of-28 for 96 yards and two touchdowns. “We found a different way to win,” DeBoer said. “That’s the sign of a great football team. We beat them at their own game (ball control, defense).”
“Every day is different,” Haener said. “And (last Saturday) was the run game.”
The Wolf Pack’s defense of Haener will start up front. The Pack leads the Mountain West with 27 sacks and leads the nation with 4.5 sacks a game. Tristan Nichols has eight sacks and leads the nation with 1.6 per game.
“We have to disrupt the rhythm of this offense,” Norvell said. “That will be very important this weekend.”
Strong also has to be concerned with the Fresno State pass rush. The Bulldogs have 19 sacks this year and are 29th in the nation at 2.71 per game.
“You have to make them earn it,” said Inge, whose defense has two shutouts this season and is allowing just 19.3 points and 183.3 passing yards a game. “Their quarterback is great at pushing the ball and making plays down the field. And he has a lot of weapons. In my opinion (Doubs, Turner, Horton) will all have something involved in the NFL in the future.
“But we want our defense to show that our offense has the best wide receivers on the field on Saturday.”
Fresno State has not played at Bulldog Stadium since a 38-30 victory over UNLV on Sept. 24. The Bulldogs have attracted 30,418 fans a game at home this year, an average that is expected to go up after this weekend’s Homecoming festivities. A crowd of 35,093 showed up to watch UNLV, a team that hasn’t won a game since 2019. This weekend’s game is the one Bulldog fans, which have had to sit through wins over Connecticut, Cal Poly and UNLV, have been waiting for all season long.
“It’s going to be a big game for us,” Haener said. “I know there’s going to be a lot of people excited to see us play a really good Nevada team and we need the fans to show up. We need 40,000 there screaming loud.”
The last time the Wolf Pack played at Bulldog Stadium, a 35-28 victory with Strong as a freshman in 2019, a crowd of 32,303 showed up, though Fresno State was just 4-6 going into the game.
This year the stakes are much different. The Wolf Pack (5-1, 2-0) and Fresno State (5-2, 2-1) are fighting for the West Division title.
“The guys definitely understand the magnitude of this game,” said DeBoer, whose Bulldogs must play Nevada, San Diego State and Boise State over the next three weekends. “They understand how important this game is in order to win the division.”

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