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Scouting Report: UCLA vs. Fresno State

By Sam Settleman

Sept. 17, 2021 5:34 p.m.

No. 13 UCLA football (2-0) has shot up in the national rankings in the early stages of the season, but Fresno State (2-1) – a team that gave No. 4 Oregon a scare earlier in the year – stands in the way of the Bruins going undefeated in nonconference play. Here is this week’s scouting report from assistant Sports editor Sam Settleman – who doesn’t understand why the No. 13-ranked team in the nation is playing at 7:45 p.m. on Pac-12 Network.

Fresno State’s offense
Offensive scheme: Spread
Run-pass percentage: 51.2% pass, 48.8% run
Strength: Skill players
Weakness: Running game
X-factor: WR Josh Kelly

Last year’s top-ranked offense in the Mountain West, the Bulldogs return all of their key pieces.

But more importantly, they provide a matchup nightmare for the Bruins.

While Fresno State currently mixes in a somewhat effective run game, this is a team that wants to throw the ball. The Bulldogs rank fifth in the nation with 385 passing yards per game, presenting a stark contrast to the Bruins’ pass defense, which ranks 115th in the country.

The air attack starts with quarterback Jake Haener, a transfer from Washington who played his first season in Fresno State uniform in 2020 and finished the year ranked No. 4 in the NCAA with 336.8 passing yards per game. Haener – who currently leads the country in passing yards – has no shortage of weapons.

While Jalen Cropper headlines the receiving corps, six Bulldog receivers have notched at least eight receptions in three games so far. Wide receiver Josh Kelly leads the team in receiving yards and ranks 27th in the nation with 23 yards per catch.

First-Team All-Mountain West running back Ronnie Rivers, who set the school record for career touchdowns earlier this season, has also proven himself to be a reliable target out of the backfield.

But for a team with gaudy passing numbers, Fresno State doesn’t air it out as much as you might expect, often relying instead on its skill players to make plays after the catch.

Haener can also make plays with his legs when he needs to. With three rushing touchdowns in three games this season, the signal-caller is often the beneficiary of a read-option game out of the shotgun or pistol that the Bulldogs have had success with in the red zone, even against a dominant Oregon front seven.

And while Haener’s 73.6% completion percentage may paint a picture of a traditional pocket passer, he is no stranger to scrambling out of the pocket, extending plays and making accurate throws on the run.

If the Bulldogs can routinely nickel-and-dime their way down the field with chunk plays through the air, the Bruins’ secondary will be in for a long night. But if Fresno State can’t develop its run game against one of the top run defenses in the country, UCLA should be able to contain what is a relatively one-dimensional offense.

Fresno State’s defense
Defensive schemes: 4-2-5
Strength: Pass rush
Weakness: Rush defense
X-factor: DE David Perales

The Bulldogs have given up just 13.7 points per contest through three games, but their quality of opponent has a lot to do with that.

Fresno State shut out one of the worst teams in the FBS in Connecticut in its season-opener and held FCS program Cal Poly to 10 points last weekend, but the Bulldogs gave up 30 points per game and 430 total yards per game a season ago.

Based on Fresno State’s defense last year and how it fared against Oregon in week one, it’s clear this defense can be exploited on the ground. The Bulldogs ranked 106th out of 127 teams in rushing defense last year, giving up 212.3 yards per game, and they conceded 200 rushing yards to the Ducks two weeks ago, including a game-winning 30-yard run from Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown on fourth-and-2.

But Fresno State also returned a big presence up front with starting defensive tackle Leonard Payne Jr. who opted out of the 2020 season, and the Bulldogs have given up an impressive 2.5 yards per carry this season. Not only will Payne and the rest of the defensive line be crucial in containing a lethal rushing attack from the Bruins, but they will also be instrumental in slowing down UCLA’s passing game.

Boasting the third-best sack rate in the country a season ago, Fresno State can wreak havoc in the backfield. Second-Team All-Mountain West defensive end David Perales had four sacks and five tackles for loss in his first season with the Bulldogs in 2020.

On the right side of the line, defensive end Arron Mosby has also proven to be a problem for opposing offenses. Mosby – who converted from linebacker to defensive end in the offseason – registered a strip-sack that he scooped and scored in the first quarter of Fresno State’s season-opener before forcing another fumble a week later against Oregon.

On the back end, the Bulldogs have a formidable secondary, featuring former UCLA defensive back Elijah Gates. With the Bulldogs touting a pass defense that ranked 46th in the country last year and a game-changing pass rush, it’s unlikely that senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will be the focal point of the game plan for the Bruins.

UCLA’s running back duo of junior Zach Charbonnet and redshirt senior Brittain Brown could have another big day. However, if Fresno State can figure out how to plug some holes in the teeth of its defense, it will give its potent offense a chance to pull off the upset.

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Sam Settleman | Assistant Sports editor
Settleman is currently an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, women's water polo and men's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman is currently an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, women's water polo and men's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
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