With Houston’s trip to the Hawai’i Bowl coming up this weekend, it’s time to look at their opponent, Fresno State. The Bulldogs have been a big surprise in college football, and many of their fans didn’t even expect them to get to this point. I caught up with Matthew Kenerly of the Mountain West Wire to get an idea of what to expect on Sunday.
Joe Broback: Give us a recap of how Fresno State’s season went.
Matthew Kenerly: For about a month, it looked like the first year under Jeff Tedford might go the way of most rebuilds in year one: They blew out an overmatched Incarnate Word squad, but looked uncompetitive against both Alabama and Washington. After making a quarterback switch over the bye week, though, they looked like an entirely different team.
Two separate four-game win streaks carried them to the top of the West division. The first was capped by a dominant win over San Diego State that put the Mountain West on notice, while the second ended with a season-ending victory over Boise State that will probably be remembered most for the ensuing computer ranking hijinks that followed.
In spite of having to travel to Boise for the conference championship game, the Bulldogs nearly won the whole dang thing, anyway. All things considered, though, only the most wildly optimistic Bulldogs fans would've projected nine wins in 2017, so it's hard to feel too disappointed with how things turned out.
JB: Who are some key players to watch on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs?
MK: Marcus McMaryion's emergence as a quality quarterback is the most significant reason for Fresno State's success this fall. By just about every measure that matters, he's been the best Bulldogs QB since Derek Carr graduated in 2013, so while there have been some hiccups (for instance, he's among the worst quarterbacks in the country on third downs), his play has been largely mistake-free and a boon for Fresno State's wealth of talent at wide receiver.
I'd also keep an eye on strong safety Juju Hughes. Among the Bulldogs' new young stars, Hughes might have been the biggest surprise of all after converting from cornerback and, at least according to Pro Football Focus, he played at an all-conference level this fall. With seven passes defended and six tackles for loss, he's emblematic of a defense that can do it all and should give Houston fits that will be all too familiar to many in the Mountain West.
There's also linebacker Jeffrey Allison, who briefly considered transferring from Fresno State this past offseason before staying and becoming one of the conference's hardest-hitting defenders overnight. With 113 tackles, four and a half tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, he's going to be integral in slowing down the Cougars' running attack.
JB: How was Jeff Tedford so successful in his first year, and what was the big key to their tremendous turnaround (from 1-11 to 9-4)?
MK: It's hard to say there was one big key, so I'll try to make the list as short as possible: McMaryion's ability to stabilize the most important position on the field, with about six weeks to learn the offense, was critical. The offensive line, with four returning starters from last year, progressing from abysmal to solid in run blocking and from good to great in pass protection was an unexpected development. The emergence of young talent on defense is another, especially in a secondary that needed to replace three starters from 2016. One thing might be a miracle, but improvements all across the board are simply a testament to the new coaching staff.
JB: What kind of offensive and defensive schemes do the Bulldogs run?
MK: There have been departures from the Tim DeRuyter era on both sides of the football. On offense, new coordinator Kalen DeBoer incorporated a few pro-style wrinkles and significantly slowed the pace of play, which had the result of bringing life back to the running game and enabling the passing attack to be more explosive than it had been in the past couple years. It's been a welcome sight for many to see that the offense can line up in the shotgun with 11 personnel on one play and then line up with two tight ends to run between the tackles on the next.
The defense, under Orlondo Steinauer, moved to a 4-3 from DeRuyter's 3-4 and this, more than anything, has been huge. It's allowed players to thrive all over the field, from defensive lineman Malik Forrester to linebackers Allison and George Helmuth to defensive backs Hughes and Mike Bell and Jaron Bryant. It wasn't bad last year -- more often than not, it was weighed down by the DOA offense in 2016 -- but it's not a stretch to suggest this is now one of the Group of 5's best defenses.
JB: How do they plan on negating Ed Oliver? And how do they slow down D’Eriq King?
MK: It's been a little while since the Bulldogs have faced a true dual-threat quarterback, but they've improved their ability at defending against them as the year has progressed: Jalen Hurts had a big game back in September, but the 'Dogs defense dominated New Mexico and held other mobile quarterbacks in check. By the numbers, King has done the most damage on early downs with both his arm and his legs, so I think it'll be crucial for Fresno State to force the Cougars into third-and-long whenever possible and then hoping their strength in passing situations can hold up: Since taking over in the South Florida game, King has completed 77% of his throws for 8.2 yards per attempt on passing downs (2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, 4th-and-5 or more). If you don't know, both of those figures are very good.
On the other hand, suggesting there's a plan to slow Oliver seems foolhardy because even double teams aren't always a lock to work. I do believe, however, that if the Bulldogs find some early success with the short passing game, whether it's in the screen game (Fresno State's top four running backs each have at least 11 catches) or crossing routes to Jamire Jordan, the team's fastest receiver, or other similar plays, it could take some of the aggression out of the Houston pass rush.
The bigger question is whether the running game can do what it usually wants to do. They averaged 4.45 yards per carry in conference play, which ranked just 7th in the Mountain West, but they never got pushed backwards with just 23 tackles for loss allowed, too, which was tied with Miami of Ohio for the best figure among any Group of 5 team (and Fresno State had nine games to Miami's eight). Oliver's definitely good enough to blow up the usual game plan, though, and if it's not working, I'm not certain that Fresno State will be able to win while leaning on the pass.