INGLEWOOD, Calif. — A week of comedy and fun ended with the Fresno State Bulldogs having the last laugh. And they made history too.
The Bulldogs became the first team in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history to win double-digit games after a 1-4 start to the season. They dominated both sides of the ball against a shorthanded Washington State Cougars team, winning 29-6.
“[We] never gave up,” said Bulldogs head coach Jeff Tedford. “We just took it one week at a time… the coaches did a phenomenal job of creating an environment of belief every single day.”
The Bulldogs and Cougs visited the Jimmy Kimmel Show in the week leading up to the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. While both enjoyed the famous comedians’ jokes, the only team leaving Los Angeles with high spirits is the Bulldogs.
However, their celebrations may be bittersweet as the game marks the end of Jake Haener and other vital seniors’ collegiate careers. The Bulldogs will have to turn to their team’s next chapter: one without many of their leaders.
“[Haener] has brought so much more to our team than just his arm talent and throwing the football,” Tedford said. “His leadership, his knowledge about what is going on, his input on the sideline… [Haener] is another coach on the field. I love him.”
Haener made sure the Cougars stood no chance. The senior quarterback spread the ball, completing passes to eight different receivers. From the start, Haener’s domination was evident, as the Bulldogs needed just six plays to score a touchdown on their first drive.
Haener finished with 280 yards on 24-of-36 completion and two touchdowns.
The game served as an ending of a chapter for the Bulldogs because many of their top contributors plan to move on. Some of their seniors who could have played their last collegiate game include Jalen Moreno-Cropper, Nikko Remigio, and Jordan Mims.
Running back Mims was excellent against the Cougars, making the right reads on his cuts. He ran for 210 yards on just 18 carries and scored twice. After the game, Mims was named the Stifel Offensive Most Valuable Player (MVP).
Wide receivers Remigio and Moreno-Cropper chipped in with 84 and 42 yards, respectively. Remigio scored a touchdown too.
Defensively was much of the same by the Bulldogs. They placed Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward under duress the whole game and sacked him six times.
Defensive lineman Devo Bridges led their defensive unit with eight tackles and two sacks. He won the Stifel Defensive MVP postgame.
Off the field, Fresno State had the advantage in the crowd. Their fans showed up in large numbers and were on their feet often, roaring their seniors and their team on.
Haener missed multiple games earlier this season because of an ankle injury. However, since his return, the Bulldogs never lost. They won nine straight games and were crowned Mountain West and LA Bowl champions.
Even with Haener and other senior contributors potentially moving on to the next level, bowl game opt-outs were not an issue for the Bulldogs.
“I do not think there was any talk of people not playing in this game,” Tedford said. “There are a lot of teams where people opt out of games but I did not hear any talk about that because of the commitment our players have to each other.”
Opt-outs were a problem on the other sideline, though. The Cougars also did not have much of their starting defense active. Some of their inactive players included their three starting linebackers, one being First Team All PAC-12 selection Daiyan Henley, cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, and safety Sam Lockett III.
To make matters worse for the Cougars, they also entered the game without their offensive and defensive coordinators as they accepted coaching jobs elsewhere.
The Bulldogs carved up the Cougars’ shorthanded defense without much resistance, finishing the Haener era with a historic ten-win season. They ran for 255 yards on 6.9 yards per carry.
“I do not think we ever got into rhythm,” said Cougars head coach Jake Dickert. “Winning is hard.”
A long offseason lies ahead for both programs, who will look to fill key pieces. However, for one, the Bulldogs, it ends with triumph, and for the other, the Cougars, it ends in defeat.