The Bruins are going to be facing down one of the most potent offenses in the country late Saturday night, regardless of conference.
Fresno State (2-1) will make the trip south to the Rose Bowl to take on No. 13 UCLA football (2-0). The game poses a far different matchup than the two teams had back in 2018, with Chip Kelly still kicking in Westwood and Kalen DeBoer having replaced Jeff Tedford in Fresno in 2019.
The Bruins have virtually the same exact staff outside of a few title changes and positional coach replacements. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are headed into their third season with Ryan Grubb at offensive coordinator and their second with DeBoer at head coach and William Inge at defensive coordinator.
Fresno State has leaned on its passing game to get off to a hot start, compared to the more balanced attack that got them past UCLA and to a 12-2 record under Tedford three years ago. Much like the Bruins, the Bulldogs have taken full advantage of the transfer portal, and that has helped DeBoer reshape his team on the fly after they went 4-8 in 2019 and 3-3 in 2020.
So with last season and the first three games of 2021 in mind, here's a quick rundown of what Fresno State might look like come Saturday.
Fresno State Offense vs. UCLA Defense
Fresno State Passing Yards/Game: 385.0 yards
Fresno State Rushing Yards/Game: 143.3 yards
UCLA Passing Yards Allowed/Game: 286.5 yards
UCLA Rushing Yards Allowed/Game: 37.5 yards
DeBoer came up under Tedford as an offensive coordinator, and he typically runs a similar offense to his predecessor.
Tedford’s Fresno State teams were also reliant on the pass, but not like this – DeBoer’s 2021 squad has dropped back to pass 38.7 times per game compared to 33.7 run plays. 72.9% of their yards and 62.3% of their touchdowns have come through the air.
The Bulldogs often line up in shotgun as part of a spread offense, a look the Bruins already faced against Hawaii earlier in the season.
But unlike how the Rainbow Warriors and quarterback Chevan Cordeiro thrived on button hooks, screens and bootlegs, Fresno State attacks the middle of the field much more often.
Led by quarterback Jake Haener, Fresno State ranks No. 5 in passing yards per game and No. 9 in passer rating on the season with 385.0 and 186.5, respectively. In addition to boasting solid arm strength and throw power, Haener can really move, scrambling not only to get yards but also to extend plays in and around the pocket.
Haener can complete passes all over the field, but he is certainly an above average passer over the middle. It doesn't hurt that he has Jalen Cropper, Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly lining up at receiver, combining for 202.3 yards and two touchdowns per game.
Whether it’s on deep slants, seams or posts, Haener has proven capable of taking advantage of matchups with flat-footed linebackers, over-aggressive safeties and corners giving big cushions, especially in zone coverage.
He even did it against Oregon, which is now the No. 4 team in the country, as Haener almost led his team to an upset over the Ducks in Week 1.
The defenses Haener faced Week 0 and Week 2 were nowhere near as good as Oregon, though, which meant Haener saw even more success throwing between the numbers beyond 10 yards downfield.
Part of the reason his stats are so good are because of those inferior opponents – UConn and local FCS squad Cal Poly. The Huskies and Mustangs’ poor tackling and subpar reads led to big plays for the Bulldogs and inflated Haener’s stats to a top-10 level when he certainly is not a top 10 passer in the country.
Taking out the matchup against Cal Poly since they aren't at the FBS level, Fresno State actually has a negative estimated points added per play mark on offense this season in non-garbage time, according to College Football Geek.
If Fresno State thinks it's going to be able to replicate the same passing attack it deployed on UConn and Cal Poly, its staff is sorely mistaken.
UCLA’s secondary has allowed 286.5 passing yards per game, which ranks No. 115 in the nation. On the surface, it would seem defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and assistant head coach Brian Norwood’s defense has regressed even from last year when it was also comfortably in the bottom tier.
However, the gross yards don’t tell anywhere near the full story, considering the types of games the Bruins have been in. Holding a lead for most of each of their first two contests and boasting a run defense that has held opponents to 1.6 yards per carry, Hawaii and LSU elected to air it out more than twice as much as they ran the ball. On an efficiency basis, the Bruins’ have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 54.5% percent of their passes for 5.8 yards per attempt, which ranks all the way up at No. 38 in the nation.
Safety Quentin Lake is disruptive over the middle and cornerbacks Mo Osling III and Cam Johnson have come to play early this year. Talent and experience-wise, this is going to look a lot more like the Oregon defense Haener had to face in Week 1, when he was “limited” to 298 yards, one touchdown and a 135.7 passer rating – all season-lows for him.
Running back Ronnie Rivers was an All-Mountain West honorable mention in 2020, but he has yet to really get rolling on the ground this fall even with the two cupcake matchups. Rivers is averaging 54 rushing yards per game on 4.0 yards per carry. At this point, he’s more of a threat coming out of the backfield as a receiver, posting 42.7 yards per game on 3.3 receptions per game as a pass-catcher.
Haener is Fresno State’s next most regular ball-carrier, so while running backs Jordan Mims and Jordan Wilmore are averaging a combined 7.3 yards per touch, they don’t figure to see the ball too much come Saturday. Haener’s running ability works well in scrambling situations, but is equally as valuable in designed runs down by the goal line. Even when the play breaks down, he has the vision to salvage a couple yards here and there.
Protecting Haener and paving the way for Rivers is a starting offensive line of Dontae Bull, Mose Vavao, Matt Smith, Bula Schmidt and Alex Akingbulu, from left to right. All of them outside of Vavao are upperclassmen, and both guys on the left side bring a lot of size to the table.
Fresno State Defense vs. UCLA Offense
UCLA Passing Yards/Game: 204.0 yards
UCLA Rushing Yards/Game: 233.5 yards
Fresno State Passing Yards Allowed/Game: 155.0 yards
Fresno State Rushing Yards Allowed/Game: 93.3 yards
The Bruins are going to go into Saturday very familiar with the base defense they're facing.
Inge runs a 4-2-5 set, the exact same formation Norwood brought with him from Navy to Westwood in the 2020 offseason. As a result, UCLA has been practicing against very similar looks for the past 12 months and likely won't be thrown off by the niche formation and its associated pressures.
Fresno State's version of edge rusher Mitchell Agude is Arron Mosby. While he isn't quite as disruptive as Agude, Mosby leads the Bulldogs with 4.5 tackles for loss to go along with his 2.0 sacks, 13 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Mosby recovered one of those fumbles he forced against UConn, blitzing off the left end virtually untouched on his way to the quarterback and scooping it up for a 32-yard touchdown return.
The Huskies' right tackle clearly didn't have the best fundamentals on the play and he was very late to the point of contact, but it goes to show just how quick Mosby and his 6-foot-4 frame can be.
The Bulldogs' front seven as a whole is solid, but again, most of their stats are boosted by the weak strength of schedule.
Oregon was able to rack up 186 rushing yards compared to the 35 and 53 UConn and Cal Poly recorded, respectively. Part of that had to do with the Ducks committing to the run through thick and thin though, as they only mustered up 3.8 yards per carry against the Bulldogs. One week later, Oregon gashed then-No. 3 Ohio State for 269 yards and 7.1 yards per carry.
The Ducks' offensive line and top running back CJ Verdell are no joke, so making key stops in short-yardage situations like this shows how physical and tough the Fresno State run defense can be.
Defensive tackle Kevin Atkins is a big part of that line, as he also has 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks through three games. Linebacker Levelle Bailey was an All-Mountain West honorable mention in 2020 and he continues to be a solid lynchpin for the Bulldogs, especially on the ground. He also has Fresno State's lone interception of the season, so he's no slouch in coverage either.
In the secondary, safeties Evan Williams and Elijah Gates – a former Bruin – stand out as the most dangerous players to target. Both are good tacklers with good speed, and although they aren't elite playmakers or ball hawks, they have been utilized well by Inge so far this season.
The nickel/striker role in Fresno State's 4-2-5 will be filled by Justin Houston, who operates more as a blitzer and extra pass rusher than a slot corner or safety a la Qwuantrezz Knight. The whole idea of that extra defensive back is to bring more pressure and disguise looks, but Houston is more one-dimensional that Knight. Even in that role, Houston doesn't have a tackle behind the line of scrimmage this season, and he averages just 3.3 tackles per game.
Overall, the Bulldogs' second half performance against the Ducks – in which they allowed just 10 points despite giving up 220 yards – is the pinnacle of what they can hope to achieve in Pasadena come Saturday. The Bruins' offensive line is well-coached and physical enough to exert its will on nearly any defensive line in the country when it comes to the running game.
As a result, UCLA will surely put together a bunch of long drives. If Houston and the Fresno State linebackers can control the middle of the field and do well spying on a scrambling Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Bulldogs could force a turnover or two and limit the Bruins to a couple red zone field goals.
The talent UCLA boasts will likely power through, though, and just as they did against Hawaii and LSU, the Bruins will finish drives early and often to string together a solid offensive performance.