Heisman hopeful hits Hawaii: Fresno State QB Haener turning into handful for defenses

  • Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener avoids a sack against UNLV linebacker Austin Ajiake during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

You might remember the pieces of himself that Jake Haener left all over the Rose Bowl on Sept. 18.

He got them back.

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Haener was fully functioning last Friday night, and not a moment too soon for Fresno State. The Bulldogs were trailing UNLV, 14-6, when Haener hit Erik Brooks with an 18-yard touchdown, 32 seconds before halftime. Then he threw four more scores and Fresno State won, 38-30.

This was Fresno State’s follow-up to its epic 40-37 win over UCLA on Sept. 18.

Haener leads the nation in passing yardage, is tied for second in TD passes, and has thrown two interceptions in 186 attempts.

The Heisman Trophy chase is fluid these days, with Matt Corral of Mississippi primed for his audition versus Alabama on Saturday. But Haener already has his Moment.

He was 39 for 53 against UCLA and got two touchdowns in the final 2:55. The winning drive was 75 yards in 40 seconds without having to use a timeout and with severe doubt, after each snap, that Haener would be able to limp to the line to take the next one. He had taken a hard sandwich from Bruin defenders that crushed his hip. An athletic commission would have stopped the fight.

Unfortunately for Haener, his Tiger-Woods-at-Torrey-Pines imitation happened well after 2 a.m. in the East. There are few insomniacs or barflies on the Heisman voting panel.

“Haener had the performance of the year that you didn’t see,” said Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s lead college football analyst. “There’s not a lot of people in the country who saw that game and it’s a shame.”

Haener’s next challenge is Saturday against Hawaii in Honolulu, another game that is marketed to the vampire population (5 p.m. Hawaii time kickoff, 11 p.m. in the East.)

Fortunately for Haener, he has a contingency plan. His father Ryan sells orthopedic parts for joint replacements.

“I told him that he oughta give one of them to Jake,” said Craig Bergman, who coached Haener at Monte Vista High in the East Bay enclave of Danville, Calif.

“It was an oblique injury and that was about the toughest thing you can have if you’re trying to throw a football, with all the rotation. Jake said it was like somebody sticking a machete in him, every time he tried to torque up.”

Eric Krommenhoek is a tight end for USC who had just returned from the win at Washington State the night Fresno upset UCLA. He played with Haener at Monte Vista and was not a bit surprised.

“I’ve seen him do it a lot,” Krommenhoek said. “He’s one of those guys who can process what everybody’s doing on the whole field and doesn’t need a lot of time to get you down there. It doesn’t matter how many times he gets hit. We all knew he wasn’t getting the recruiting offers he should have.”

Haener signed with Washington, the alma mater of his mom Julie, a TV news anchor in the Bay Area. Jacob Eason, a Seattle high school legend, had signed with Georgia but couldn’t nail down the starting job, so he transferred back to Washington. The coaching staff picked him.

“I think Jake decided to transfer the next day,” Bergman said. “It was political. By all accounts Jake had won the job. He was cordial and took the high road. But he’s that type of competitor. You want somebody else? I’ll just go somewhere else.”

Plus, it wasn’t exactly a demotion. Fresno State has won 10 or more games in three of the past eight seasons.

“We’ve beaten UCLA four times in a row,” said Derek Carr, the Bulldog alum who now quarterbacks the Raiders. “It’s the best college program in the state.”

“But then Jake has always been like that,” Bergman said. “He came up to me when he was in the sixth grade and told me he’d be my next quarterback. I said, well, maybe in peewee ball.

“Against Dublin he got called for a personal foul. I never had that happen to a quarterback before.”

Nate Landman, Colorado’s All-Pac 12 linebacker, also played with Haener and Krommenhoek. That team went 12-1.

“It’s an affluent area and the parents are really involved, which can be good and bad,” said Bergman, who stepped down after that 2016 season. “We play with homegrown kids because it’s too wealthy for people to move in. We have a lot of sons from former Raiders and 49ers who have settled here.”

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It’s also where the best quarterback in this young season plays after prime time for most Heisman voters. Fire up the coffee pot if you must, but don’t sleep on Jake Haener.

Whicker writes for the Daily News, Los Angeles

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