INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The last time Jake Haener played in a game in Southern California, he was carted off the field with what appeared to be a season-ending ankle injury.
On Saturday, he can lead Fresno State to the biggest in-season turnaround in Football Bowl Subdivision history when the Bulldogs face Washington State in the LA Bowl (12:30 p.m., Channel 2).
The Bulldogs (9-4) have won eight straight after starting the season 1-4. They would be the first team to record a 10-win season after dropping four of their first five.
A big part of the turnaround has been Haener. In the six games since his return, the senior has passed for 1,762 yards with 14 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 75% completion rate.
“I didn’t want my last season to end getting carted off the field,” Haener said after the Bulldogs defeated Boise State 28-16 in the Mountain West title game. “So I was gonna do everything I could to get back out here.”
Haener suffered a fractured right ankle during the Bulldogs 45-17 loss to Southern California on Sept. 17. The senior thought he would need season-ending surgery, but Haener found out it wasn’t a complete break after getting a second opinion from Dr. Robert Anderson, who treats many NFL players, including Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers.
Haener missed only four games and was back on the field in late October. He helped lead the Bulldogs to their first Mountain West title since 2018.
“I’m very sad this is our last game together. He is a special guy,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said of Haener. “He’s the most disciplined guy I’ve been around in anything. When he came back, it gave us a boost in the arm. His arm talent and ability to throw the ball, he brings so much more to a team.”
Haener isn’t Fresno State’s only offensive threat. Running back Jordan Mims rushed for 1,163 yards, and Jalen Moreno-Cropper had 79 receptions for 1,044 yards.
They will face a Washington State defense that is missing three starting linebackers. Daiyan Henley, a first-team selection to the All-Pac-12 team, opted out of the game to focus on preparing for the NFL draft, while Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown entered the transfer portal.
The Cougars (7-5) are looking for the Pac-12’s first win in any bowl since Oregon beat Wisconsin in the 2020 Rose Bowl. The conference is on a seven-game losing streak in bowl games.
The Cougars have also been hit by departures by both coordinators.
Offensive coordinator Eric Morris left to become the head coach at North Texas, and defensive coordinator Brian Ward departed to become Arizona State’s coordinator.
The staff shortages have meant head coach Jake Dickert is back coaching defense.
“He told us the other day it’s like ‘riding a bike again.’ He’s so excited about it,” linebacker Brennan Jackson said. “He’s been bringing the energy to practice. It’s been fun seeing him run around really getting into it.”
Ward leads Cougars
Sophomore QB Cameron Ward was second in the Pac-12 in completions (298) and had five games with a rushing TD and passing score.
Washington State is also lacking depth at wide receiver. Starters De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie entered the transfer portal, and Renard Bell opted out of the game.
Ward said that even with the departures, the practices this week were important for the bowl game and going into next season.
“Just getting those guys not really up to speed but to them seeing what I’m seeing at the same time on the field, you know, where they have a reroute, or whatever the concept is,” Ward said. “So just being on time with them and being good communicators with them this way.”
Keep an eye on…
Fresno State defensive end David Perales. The senior is second among active players in FBS in forced fumbles (nine) and sacks per game (0.69) along with fourth in tackles for loss per game (1.14).
This is the second Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl, which featured both teams’ visits to a taping of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier in the week.
Last year’s game had an announced crowd of 29,896, less than half the capacity of SoFi Stadium.
“There are still seats available,” Kimmel said during Wednesday’s show. “If you look at the areas in blue, almost all the seats are available. So that’s good. You got so much leg room.
“Next year, we’re calling it the Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl presented by Stifel and Taylor Swift,” he said.