Winning close football games hasn’t been Fresno State’s forte during the 2019 campaign, but that’s exactly what the Bulldogs did in last week’s thrilling 41-38 triumph over Hawaii on the road.
The Bulldogs outscored the Warriors 27-14 in the second half en route to earning their first victory by fewer than 13 points this season. It gave FSU its second win in its past three games, and the Bulldogs will look to keep that momentum rolling Saturday at home against Utah State.
“You have to find a way to win,” FSU head coach Jeff Telford said. “Down the stretch, it was nerve-racking for sure. It’s a good football team and a close, hard-fought game. To be able to come back in the second half and then turn back around and be able to win it at the end, I’m really proud of Cesar for putting it through the uprights.”
The Bulldogs marched 55 yards in nine plays during the final 1:08 of the contest. Kicker Cesar Silva booted a 37-yard field goal as time expired for FSU, which had a 10-point lead earlier in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jorge Reyna made big plays with his feet — he had a 17-yard run — and arm during his team’s game-winning drive.
“Jorge did a really nice job of running the two-minute drill,” Telford said. “He did a lot with his legs during that time because (Hawaii was) playing a lot of man coverage and were spread all over the field; (they) covered our guys down pretty well. Jorge, I thought, played a really good game as far as being able to use his legs and make key first downs, and make big plays for us running the football.”
Reyna wasn’t the only Bulldog to have success carrying the pigskin in that game. The Bulldogs have made significant strides with their ground attack as of late as they are averaging 246.0 rushing yards an outing and 7.0 yards per carry during their last three contests. Additionally, FSU had scored 13 rushing touchdowns during that timespan, including two in each game by tailback Ronnie Rivers.
Rivers has gained more than 100 yards on the ground the past two weeks and is FSU’s leader this season with 553 yards on 109 carries. Rivers, who racked up 212 rushing yards vs. Arizona State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, is currently tied with Josh Hokit for the team lead with eight TDs on the ground.
Reyna and Jalen Cropper have teamed up for 584 rushing yards and four TDs this season, giving the Bulldogs two more viable rushing options.
When he’s not making plays with his feet, Reyna has been a good playmaker through the air. The senior has completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 1,829 yards (228.6 per game) and 11 TDs, vs. six interceptions. The Bulldogs are averaging 415.4 yards of total offense per game.
“On tape, it’s balanced, it’s a good attack,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said of FSU’s offense. “Jeff Telford is a heck of a coach. He does a great job of coordinating the defense and running a football team, and has had a lot of experience doing it. They want to be balanced, they want to cause you some issues with formations in different scenarios, which is what every good offensive coordinator does. ... They do a good job of using the full football field, which a good offense does.”
Reyna’s go-to target in the passing game has been wide receiver Zane Pope, who is FSU’s leader in catches (32) and receiving yards (336). The 6-foot-2 sophomore only averages 42.0 ypg, but is one of four Bulldogs to average between 36.1 and 42.0.
The Bulldogs also have a proven commodity at tight end in Jared Rice, who ranks second in program history at his position in career receptions (98) and receiving yards (1,183). The 6-5, 243-pound senior, a second-team all-Mountain West last season, has 10 career TD catches.
Rice, Rivers and junior right tackle Syrus Tuitele are Fresno State’s only three returning starters offensively. Tuitele has made 21 career starts.
Starting center Matt Smith was injured against Hawaii, but FSU still managed to amass a season-high 514 total yards. Another one of the Bulldogs’ best offensive linemen, captain Netane Muti, suffered a season-ending injury last month. The junior has made 21 starts during his collegiate career.
It’s been somewhat of an up-and-down season defensively for the Bulldogs, who welcomed back six starters from their vaunted defense from a year ago. FSU has allowed 409.6 ypg, including an average of 244.4 yards through the air.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs have some of the best defensive performers in the Mountain West, starting with linebacker Justin Rice, who is tied with USU linebacker David Woodward for the top spot in forced fumbles (four) and ranks second behind Woodward in tackles (78). The junior has also chipped in with two interceptions and team-best marks in passes broken up (seven) fumble recoveries (two).
Senior strong safety JuJu Hughes has made 33 straight starts for FSU and is his team’s third-leading tackler this year with 57. Hughes, a second-team all-conference selection a year ago, is one of three Bulldogs with two interceptions this season.
Senior defensive end Mykal Walker, a first-team all-MW honoree in 2018, paces the Bulldogs in tackles for loss (7.5) and is second in tackles (69). Walker has 22 career starts under his belt.
Senior cornerback Jaron Bryant has started 35 games as a Bulldog, while junior defensive tackle Kevin Atkins has been in the starting lineup 22 times. Freshman safety Evan Williams is the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week. He recorded nine tackles and picked off a fourth-quarter pass against the Warriors.
Although the Bulldogs have given up a fair amount of yards, they have been very opportunistic and aggressive defensively as they rank in the top 10 nationally in turnovers forced per game with 2.25. FSU has 18 takeaways (10 INTs and eight forced fumbles) in eight games and has a turnover margin of plus-five.
“They’re an athletic, talented group that I think is well-coached and sound,” Andersen said of FSU’s defense. “... I guess the most noticeable thing to me is, scheme-wise, they’re sound, they play hard and they’re a group that’s going to make you earn your way. ... They haven’t been a team that’s given up huge amounts of big plays.”
Silva has struggled at times kicking field goals this fall as he has missed nine of 21, but he is 4 of 6 on attempts between 40-49 yards. The junior has a long of 48 yards.
FSU punter Blake Cusick has been rock solid as he has averaged 43.9 yards on 31 attempts and has placed 10 of them inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.
The Bulldogs are currently averaging 10.4 yards on seven punt returns and 18.9 yards on 21 kickoff returns. FSU has allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD this fall.