FRESNO, Calif. – Jake Haener already had tears in his eyes talking about his final home game earlier in the week.
The decorated quarterback will be one of at least 13 players honored here on senior night. The list also includes star running back Jordan Mims and dominant pass rusher David Perales.
Fresno State, which has already clinched the West Division and will play Boise State in the Mountain West title game, was built to win a championship this season.
Wyoming, which introduced just four seniors before last Saturday’s home finale, was a surprise contender for the Mountain Division before the excruciating 20-17 loss to the Broncos.
The Cowboys (7-4, 5-2 MW) will have to dig deep to match the emotion of the Bulldogs (7-4, 6-1 MW) to close the regular season on a winning note Friday night at Valley Children’s Stadium (8 p.m., FS1).
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“We addressed those issues in a team meeting,” UW head coach Craig Bohl said when asked how his team responded in practice after the dream-crushing defeat to Boise State. “They had their eyes set on winning the Mountain side. I know a lot of people would have said at the beginning of the year, ‘Well, shoot, you ought to be happy you’re competitive.’
“That’s not the attitude of these young guys. It’s great. They saw themselves as having the ability to be a champion on the Mountain side. You get concerned about that. We responded well.”
Haener, despite missing five games due to injury, has passed for 2,249 yards with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. He is completing 74.5% of his passes.
UW held Haener to 96 yards passing and two touchdowns last season, but Fresno State left War Memorial Stadium with a 17-0 win.
“Haener is unbelievable,” Bohl said. “He makes all the throws; he has a really strong arm, and he must have an off-the-chart football IQ. He has 255 attempts and three interceptions. I mean, sometimes you throw three interceptions in one game.”
Pokes fans are well aware of that.
Jayden Clemons was 3-for-16 passing for 30 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions in his first career start. Two of the picks came in the final two minutes with a chance to tie or win the game.
Andrew Peasley, who remained in concussion protocol at the start of the week, was listed is the co-starter by UW on the depth chart.
“I would never question our coaches,” tight end Parker Christensen said of the struggling Clemons getting the green light to throw the ball on his third and final interception when a field goal would have forced overtime. “I believe in our coaches with everything that I have. I feel like they put us in the best position to win that game. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Titus Swen rushed for a career-high 212 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown that gave UW the lead entering the fourth quarter, against Boise State. But he only carried the ball twice after the score and did not have a carry on either of the final two drives.
The Pokes might need Swen to play like Brian Hill, who set the MW and UW single-game record for all-purpose yards (387) during a win at Fresno State in 2014, to keep up on the scoreboard.
Fresno State is on a six-game winning streak with Haener completing 77% of his passes for 1,395 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions over the last four games.
Mims has 1,028 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. His 93.3 rushing yards per game ranks third in the conference behind Air Force’s Brad Roberts (129.6) and Boise State’s George Holani (97.7).
“They have a lot of skill, and they have a quarterback that can get it to everybody. I think that’s the biggest problem,” UW defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “In order to play against an offense like that you better be playing really well at all levels.”
The Cowboys have been forced to develop depth down the stretch with Gavin Meyer filling in admirably for Cole Godbout at nose tackle and Wrook Brown making plays at nickelback in place of Keonte Glinton.
Without defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole, who dominated the Border War before getting injured in the 14-13 win at Colorado State, third-string defensive lineman Ethan Drewes stepped up and forced Holani to fumble on the final minute.
Defensive end DeVonne Harris returned the turnover 44 yards to put the Pokes in position to take the division lead before Clemons’ costly interception.
“Our players did a great job the other night as far as just hanging in the fight,” Sawvel said. “The effort that they gave was tremendous. The demeanor that they had after it was good, too. A lot of them were just crushed. Nobody is happy to see people that way, and I’m not, but it meant so much to them and they put so much into it, and it showed.”
The future appears to be bright for the Cowboys, who only introduced offensive linemen Eric Abojei, Zach Watts and Marco Machado and safety Miles Williams on senior night.
But Bohl wants the third-youngest team in the FBS to live in the moment because nothing is guaranteed. Just ask Jeff Linder, Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado.
“A lot of times you look at potential and you get really excited, then sometimes the potential doesn’t turn into productivity and guys that are younger don’t progress,” Bohl said. “The proof is going to be in the pudding as they matriculate through. It was impactful to me, you get in the middle of a season, and you know you’re young, then all of a sudden, you’re standing out there and I’m used to 12-to-15 guys, and you’ve got four.
“You go, ‘Wow, we’re out here competing for a potential Mountain West championship with four seniors who ran out.’ That’s when it kind of hits you, this is a pretty remarkable group of guys.”