Admit it. If during the Summer, we told you UCLA could get out of the non-conference season at 3-0, you would think we were crazy. UCLA had not even won an out-of-conference in the Chip Kelly era prior to this year. And with an SEC blueblood on the schedule, the idea of 3-0 to start was crazy. But as we look at UCLA vs Fresno State, that is what is on the line for the Bruins.
UCLA vs Fresno State
Fresno State comes into the game 2-1 with its only loss coming to what is clearly a very good Oregon team, on the road. The Bulldogs have won three in a row against the Bruins, including a 38-14 thumping of UCLA at the Rose Bowl in 2018. That was memorable as anything for the thousands of Fresno State fans staying in the south end zone to celebrate long after the UCLA fans had bailed out.
Fresno State’s Quarterback
The top chore for UCLA this week is going to be trying to contain quarterback Jake Haener. The senior transfer from Washington is first in the FBS in passing yards with 1,009. Before you dismiss his yardage total because of beating up on Cal Poly last week, Haener only three 22 passes in the game and did not play most of the second half because of the blowout. He also finished the game 17 of 22 for 380 yards and four touchdowns. His 73% completion rate leads the country. Earlier this week, Kelly said Haener reminded him of a college version of Russell Wilson. “He’s a really, really good football player. He’s dynamic. He has a knack for keeping plays alive. He’s really athletic. He’s just a productive football player We’re going to have our hands full containing him,” Kelly said.
Ironically Haener says he grew up dreaming of playing in the Pac-12 and playing on the Rose Bowl. The closest he got was suiting up for the Washington Huskies when they played UCLA at the Rose Bowl in 2018, although he did not get in the game. “For me, it’s a great opportunity,” Haener said earlier this week. “It’s a childhood dream literally since I was like five or six years old. It’s a cool opportunity to get my parents in there to watch me, and my friends.”
He said he is also excited about the Bulldogs faithful, well known for travelling throughout the West to road games. The school easily sold out its allotment of tickets from UCLA. It’s anticipated there will be in excess of 4,000 Fresno State fans. The Bulldogs, as a program, are coming in very confident. The team’s official twitter feed has a video with highlights of the last three wins over UCLA. And it has this as a reminder of three years ago:
— Fresno State Football 🏆 (@FresnoStateFB) September 16, 2021
What Haener is going to see on the other side of the field is a UCLA defense that has shut down run games in the first two weeks, forcing opponents to throw more. The Bruins are fourth in the nation in rushing yards given up per game. They are giving up just 37.5 yards per game on the ground through the first two games. Conversely, both Hawaii and LSU had to air it out against the defense. As a result, the defense is back to being 115th in the country in passing yards given up. As much as that might sound like a repeat of previous years’ poor pass defense, the difference this year has been not giving up the big pass plays. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging just over five yards per completion in the two games so far.
UCLA defensive back Mo Osling III is well aware of Haener’s stats. “He’s a great quarterback. I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he said. “He’s probably the best quarterback we’ve faced this season. It’s going to be a test for our DB’s. On the back end we’ve got to lock up.”
Linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath said he was impressed with Haener’s confidence. “He’s not afraid to throw those type balls, those 50-50 balls,” Genmark-Heath said. He added that the Bruins will have to keep the Fresno State passing routes short, and he said he hoped Haener threw a 50-50 ball in his direction.
Bruins On The Ground
There is no mystery to UCLA’s offense. Pound Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown behind the veteran offensive line. The Bruins are tied for 27th in the country in rushing yards per game. Fresno State defensive coordinator William Inge said earlier this week he was impressed the physical nature of the UCLA offense. “This is a spread offense where physicality is a premium for them. They have a great, physical offense line; two running backs that hit the hole running down hill, getting vertical right now.”
Bulldogs linebacker Arron Mosby said that puts some added responsibility of the front of the Fresno State defense. “I would say for this game the front seven is very huge,” Mosby said. “We just got to try to make them, (UCLA), one-dimensional and that’s throwing the ball.”
The Quarterback Question
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is having the strangest year of his career. He has thrown only 36 passes in two games. That has been a single game total for him in the past. Further, his QBR rating leads the conference. His average of 20.53 yards per completion leads the country. And he is dead last in the conference with a 52.8% completion rate. His 195 yards passing per game is the lowest since he became a full time starter as a sophomore. Kelly puts both of those last two stats on the blowout win over Hawai’i in week one. Thompson sat much of the second half and was not asked to throw as much earlier in the game. Makes sense. No one is used to seeing UCLA on the delivering end of blowouts in the last three-plus years.
Kelly answered a question on Thompson-Robinson this week by saying, “I like the last thing you talked about. He is leading the conference in wins. That is the most important stat.”