No. 13 UCLA returns home to Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday from an early bye week to host an upset-minded Fresno State team that has the Bruins’ complete attention.
While UCLA (2-0) is playing its first game since a high-profile win Sept. 4 over 2019 national champion LSU, and sport their best ranking since peaking at No. 7 in 2015, they come into Saturday’s nonconference matchup with a losing streak against the Bulldogs.
Fresno State (2-1) won each of the last three meetings with UCLA dating back to 2000, the most recent a 38-14 rout in 2018, during Chip Kelly’s first season as Bruins head coach.
The Bulldogs have a different head coach this time, with Kalen DeBoer taking over for Jeff Tedford following the 2019 season. But Fresno State’s ability to test Pac-12 opponents appears to be unchanged with the shift in leadership.
The Bulldogs led currently fourth-ranked Oregon in the fourth quarter of a 31-24 loss in Week 1.
Fresno State’s near-miss against the two-time reigning Pac-12 champion Ducks was the result of a rally from down 21-6 in the first half. The Bulldogs have started slow in all three games, including Week 0 and Week 2 blowouts of Connecticut and Cal Poly.
A faster start is crucial for Fresno State. Which has a cumulative first-quarter score of 14-14 in three games this season. UCLA, on the other hand, has started strong by outscoring Hawaii and LSU 24-3 in the opening quarter and 45-13 in the first half.
“You’ve got a team that it’s super important for them to just play well all the time, they start putting unneeded pressure on themselves,” DeBoer said. “Especially when you’re looking at (quarterback) Jake (Haener). He just wants to go out of the gates and make it happen.”
Whether he’s pressing early or not, the Fresno State quarterback caught Kelly’s attention with his eight passing touchdowns and three rushing scores through the Bulldogs’ first three games.
“He’s a really, really good football player,” Kelly said. “He’s got a knack for keeping plays alive.”
Kelly praised Heaner’s “knowledge” of the Fresno State system and compared the quarterback’s dual-threat play to that of NFL star Russell Wilson.
“When he takes off, he’s taking off looking for touchdowns,” Kelly said of Haener’s rushing.
On the topic of rushing, UCLA has been prolific on the ground to open the season. The Bruins are averaging 227.0 yards per game, with running backs Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet combining for 200.5 of them.
Charbonnet is averaging a whopping 13.1 yards per carry for 111.5 per game with four touchdowns. It has come in a breezy 17 rushing attempts.
The Bruins defense, meanwhile, has allowed only 75 rushing yards in its two outings. UCLA held both Hawaii and LSU to fewer than two yards per carry.
Fresno State had its work cut out for it establishing the run against Oregon, totaling 77 yards at 2.6 per carry, but went for four rushing touchdowns and 196 yards against FCS opponent Cal Poly.