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Wyoming opponent preview: Is Fresno State a Mountain West sleeper?
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UW FOOTBALL | 2021 OPPONENT PREVIEW

Wyoming opponent preview: Is Fresno State a Mountain West sleeper?

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Haener, Cropper have career days in Fresno State's 35-16 win

Fresno State wide receiver Jalen Cropper (5) catches a pass as Utah State safety Dominic Tatum (23) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal via AP)

The Star-Tribune is taking an early look at each of Wyoming’s opponents in the order they appear on the Cowboys’ 2021 schedule. Next up are the Fresno State Bulldogs.

LARAMIE — San Jose State and Nevada are getting much of the hype in the Mountain West’s West Division heading into the 2021 season, but might Fresno State be a darkhorse for the division title?

The Bulldogs are certainly hoping so.

At the very least, Fresno State is coming back on Wyoming’s schedule at an interesting time. The teams haven’t met since 2018, but they will renew their series this fall when the Cowboys host Fresno State on Oct. 16.

It will be the first time UW has seen Kalen DeBoer’s version of the Bulldogs. DeBoer, a former Fresno State assistant, returned as head coach following Jeff Tedford’s retirement in 2019 and led the Bulldogs to a 3-3 record during their abbreviated 2020 season.

It was just three years ago that Fresno State won its last division title before winning just four games in Tedford’s final season at the helm. Whether the Bulldogs can become a contender again this fall remains to be seen, but there are plenty of significant contributors back to help give them a shot.

Start with quarterback Jake Haener and running back Ronnie Rivers.

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All Haener did in his first season after transferring from Washington was lead the Mountain West in passing (336.8 yards per game) and total offense (339.8). The 6-foot-1,

195-pounder completed nearly 65% of his passes, and with all of Haener’s top targets also back, the Bulldogs figure to once again have one of the nation’s top passing attacks.

Fresno State has three No. 1-caliber wideouts in Jalen Cropper, Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly, who all averaged at least 14 yards per reception last season. Cropper accounted for five of the Bulldogs’ 14 touchdown receptions while Wheatfall and Kelly combined for 693 receiving yards a season ago. Erik Brooks and Zane Pope are also back for a veteran receiving corps

Speaking of veterans, Rivers took advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility relief to return for his fifth season with the program, supplying the Bulldogs with arguably the most versatile back in the Mountain West. A first-team all-league selection last season, Rivers enters his final season at Fresno State ranked seventh in school history with 4,025 all-purpose yards. The next touchdown he scores will give him the most in program history.

Rivers along with a handful of those receivers should also make the Bulldogs a threat in the return game, but whether it’s opening up holes for the running backs or trying to keep Haener upright, the offensive line will need to be better. The line ranked 124th nationally in sacks allowed last season, though hulking left tackle (6-7, 300 pounds) Dontae Bull is back to anchor the group.

The Bulldogs have just as much experience returning on the other side of the ball with nine defensive starters back. Among those are veteran defensive tackle Kevin Atkins and all-league end David Perales. Fellow end Kwami Jones also returns to the line for a defense that was as good as any at getting to the quarterback last season (4.1 sacks per game).

Leading tackler Bralyn Lux is back in the secondary after a breakout freshman season. Corner Wylan Free and nickel Justin Houston are also returning on the back end of the Bulldogs’ defense.

Fresno State also has seasoning in the kicking game with senior Cesar Silva handing placekicking duties. If the Bulldogs stay healthy and put it all together, then maybe they can make it more than a two-team race out West.

Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.

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College sports reporter

Davis Potter is the University of Wyoming athletics reporter. An Alabama native and 2011 Auburn University graduate, Potter joined the Star-Tribune in 2018 after five years covering Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He lives in Laramie.

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