Fresno State righted itself a bit on Friday night with a 56-27 victory over UNLV, doing what it had to do against a team that did what it couldn’t afford to do.
Linebacker Justin Rice returned a fumble 18 yards for a score late in the third quarter, which was followed by a fourth-down stop and a touchdown pass from Jorge Reyna to tight end Jared Rice. That was followed by an interception by linebacker Arron Mosby and a touchdown run by Josh Hokit, and that was followed by an interception by safety Juju Hughes and another touchdown run by Hokit.
All of that happened in a span of about nine minutes and 16 plays by the Rebels.
“It happened really fast,” quarterback Kenyon Oblad said. “You look up and wondered what happened. How are we down by 20 points?”
It was a one-score game with 3:58 to go in the third quarter when defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo knocked the ball from UNLV running back Charles Williams’ grasp and Rice scooped it up and took it into the end zone.
That started the avalanche.
“When you turn the ball over five times, you’re not going to win the football game,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said.
Fresno State (3-3, 1-1 in the MW) also had its issues …
The Bulldogs were solid against the Rebels’ run game, limiting UNLV to an average of just 3.9 yards on its 40 rushing plays. But they also allowed 414 total yards, making this the first time they have won a game allowing that many yards since beating Hawaii in 2015 when yielding 437 yards.
The offense again struggled coming out of halftime, going three-and-out and then stalling out after reaching the UNLV 3-yard line and missing a short field goal attempt; it has not scored an offensive touchdown in the third quarter since the second game of the season, the overtime loss to Minnesota.
Fresno State made forward strides, though, and coming off a Mountain West loss at Air Force and rather desultory victories at 0-7 New Mexico State and against FCS Sacramento State, that is exactly what it needed.
“There are quite a few of them,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “Being able to stop the run on certain situations was a positive. Creating turnovers was huge, as it always is. Protecting the football and not turning it over ourselves is always really big. Most of the time when you win the turnover battle, you typically win the game.
“There are a lot of things to improve on, but we are going to take a look at the tape and see. What I think happens every single week, is that our guys play hard. They compete really, really hard and there is never any give-up in them. They are really invested in what they are doing. That always comes away from me after a game – how hard we play and how hard we compete. It may not always go our way but it will not be from a lack of guys competing.”
Fresno State restored its credibility as a contender in a MW West Division in which the Bulldogs are the only team without a victory over a Power Five opponent – Hawaii has two with wins over Arizona and Oregon State, Nevada beat Purdue, San Diego State beat UCLA, San Jose State won at Arkansas and UNLV won at Vanderbilt.
The run game again got a boost from freshman wideout Jalen Cropper, who bolted 82 yards on a sweep and now has the longest and third-longest runs in the Mountain West this season; he also had a 79-yard touchdown run at New Mexico State.
Reyna rebounded from a rough second half in the loss at Air Force, hitting 16 of 23 passes for 229 yards including the touchdown to Rice and four big shots of 22 yards to Keric Wheatfall, 25 to tight end Cam Sutton, 37 to Wheatfall and 53 to wideout Derrion Grim.
An offensive line that has struggled through some injury issues did not allow a sack and only two tackles for loss, and an offense that had a red zone touchdown percentage of just 50% (12 of 24) got into the end zone seven times in nine drives inside the UNLV 20-yard line, jumping to fifth in the conference from 10th.
They get a chance next Saturday to build on all of that against 2-5 Colorado State, which has beaten FCS Western Illinois and 2-4 New Mexico, before a Nov. 2 trip to Hawaii that figures to play large in the West Division race.
“It helps our confidence,” said Hughes, who had his first interception of the season. “We have not played up to our standard of football here in the past couple weeks so it is a big confidence booster and we have to build on it and keep striving.”
By the numbers
26,256 – The announced attendance, the second smallest crowd at Bulldog Stadium in the Jeff Tedford era, a span of 15 home games. The Bulldogs had only 26,162 for their Senior Day last season, a 31-13 victory over San Jose State.
5 – Fresno State was plus-5 in turnover margin (three interceptions, two fumbles), its best mark since a 2018 season-opener against FCS Idaho last season when a plus-7.
28 – Points off turnovers, a season high for Fresno State. The Bulldogs had only 25 points off turnovers over their past four games and 31 this season. They had 38 in that 79-13 victory over Idaho last season.
6 – Rushing touchdowns for the Bulldogs – they had three from Josh Hokit, two from Ronnie Rivers and one from Jorge Reyna. That is the most they have had in a game since that rout of Idaho when they had seven.
4 – Receptions for wideout Keric Wheatfall including two to move the chains on third-and-long plays. Wheatfall had a reception for 14 yards on a third-and-10 and a reception for 22 yards on a third-and-11.
23.1 – Conversion percentage on third downs for UNLV (3 of 13). Quarterback Kenyon Oblad was just 1 of 7 passing on third downs and the Rebels were just 2 of 6 on third-and-short plays when needing 1-3 yards for a first down.
3.3 – Yards per rush for UNLV running back Charles Williams, the former Bullard High standout. Williams, who had 82 yards on 25 plays, had topped the 100-yard mark in both of his career games against the Bulldogs, gaining 153 yards in 2016 and 121 last season.
8.3 – Yards per play for the Bulldogs (489 in 59), the second-highest under Tedford. Fresno State averaged 8.9 yards per play in a 38-0 victory over New Mexico in 2017.
10 – Tackles for linebacker Justin Rice. The junior from Modesto has had 10 or more tackles in three games in a row and five of six this season.
4 – Series started by Fresno State inside the UNLV 35-yard line. The Bulldogs started drives at the Rebels’ 32, 25, 1 and 23 yard lines and scored three touchdowns.