FRESNO STATE AT UTAH STATE
Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium (22,059) in Logan, Utah
Records: Bulldogs 1-6, 0-3 Mountain West; Aggies 2-4, 0-3
TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: Clear, 50 degrees
Keys to victory
1. Figure out Kent Myers – A year ago, they didn’t. Myers hit 18 of 25 passes (72 percent) for 260 yards, though, surprisingly, only one touchdown in a 56-14 victory at Bulldog Stadium. But the Aggies’ quarterback can be inconsistent, and in games that he has hit on less than 60 percent of his passes Utah State is only 3-6. Whether it’s done with pressures or disguising coverage or just winning where defender and receiver intersect, the Bulldogs have to knock the guy off his game.
2. Keep Chason Virgil moving forward – The end results make it difficult to measure development by the Bulldogs’ redshirt freshman quarterback. They obviously haven’t been good, with Fresno State at 1-6 overall and 0-3 in the Mountain West. But there was some last week against San Diego State, with an emphasis on moving up in the pocket and making plays with his feet rather than bailing left or right when pass protection broke down. He actually led the Bulldogs with 44 rushing yards, and they need that extra element in their offense.
3. Tackle – The Bulldogs played the run and got tacklers to the ball much better against the Aztecs than they had in previous games, even with Donnel Pumphrey busting out for 220 yards. It took Pumphrey a career-high 38 carries to get there and, news flash, the guy is pretty good. They are going to have to back up that effort against Utah State, especially if Devante Mays returns from a leg injury. Mays packs a punch at 230 pounds, and the Bulldogs are going to have to be very sound to get him on the ground.
Senior wideout Aaron Peck, second on the team with 62 targets and 34 receptions and one of Fresno State’s four team captains, will not play at Utah State because of an ankle injury.
The hole that leaves, obviously, is a large one, especially when the passing game has relied so heavily on Peck, KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan. That trio has accounted for 103 of Fresno State’s 128 receptions and 1,423 of its 1,628 receiving yards.
But Delvon Hardaway, who played at less than 100 percent last season coming back from a knee injury, has been waiting for more opportunities and will get them against the Aggies.
“You prepare for it every day,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior said. “Just coming back off that injury, I’ve been trying to get better every day and make sure that I’m getting faster and more acclimated to the speed. I think that will be the biggest thing in getting more reps. I’ll definitely be ready. Physically, I feel fine. Mentally, I feel fine.
“I’m capable of making the plays; it’s just making sure I have that confidence. It’s just going out there and executing on game day. I’m excited for it.”
Hardaway, who worked with the No. 1 offense during the week, has caught three passes this season, the biggest a 23-yard gain on the Bulldogs’ final drive at Nevada.
“Delly is going to have to step up,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “He has been doing good things, but obviously now there’s more pressure on him because he’s going to be in that first huddle.
“We expect big things from him. I know he has a lot of ability. He’s coming back off that knee injury, and he’s playing faster and faster each week and hopefully plays with that confidence and makes plays.”
That explains a lot – Fresno State has had 29 players see their first game action this season, one off the high under DeRuyter, including seven true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen.
Last season, the Bulldogs had 30 players debut, including 21 who started at least one game.
Rack ’em – Bulldogs inside linebacker Jeff Camilli has a chance to hit double digits in tackles for a fifth consecutive game and for the sixth time in seven games this season.
He did not play against Sacramento State because of injury.
Camilli had 15 tackles in a loss to Tulsa, including 14 solo tackles, and has had 10 tackles in the past three games at UNLV, at Nevada and against San Diego State.
“He has been really producing for us this year and that’s what you expect from a senior, a guy who has been voted captain by his teammates,” DeRuyter said.
“He embodies everything we’re trying to establish here by his work ethic and who he is. To see him be productive like that, it’s not a surprise, but it is impressive to see him compete like that. He’s not 100 percent healthy – most people aren’t at this point in the season – but he realizes this is his last one and he’s doing a terrific job of getting our guys lined up, playing with passion and leading our defense.”
The last Fresno State player to record 10 or more tackles in as many as three consecutive games was linebacker Ben Jacobs, who in 2008 had 10 at Utah State, 11 at Louisiana Tech and 13 against Nevada.
Go or no go? – Fresno State is expecting Utah State running back Devante Mays to play Saturday after missing the past three games (all losses) with a leg injury.
Aggies coach Matt Wells shed some light on Mays’ availability at his weekly news conference.
But not much.
“The bye week helps everybody,” he said. “I’m not a doctor, but everybody’s healthier from this week, and the bye week always helps that. Obviously, he is one of our better players, and we’ll see if we get him back this week or not.”
Danger spot – With or without Mays, the Aggies are highly incentivized to run the football if for no other reason than to exploit the Bulldogs’ struggles to stop or even slow opposing ground games.
The Bulldogs against FBS opponents are allowing 5.4 rushing yards per play and 304.7 per game, and the teams lined up across the line of scrimmage have run an average of 56 times per game.
Utah State has been fairly balanced, rushing it 35.5 and throwing it 35.8 times per game.
There also is this to consider … Utah State has won 21 of the past 22 games in which it has run 40 or more times and won 18 of its past 20 when it has had a back rush for 100 or more yards.
Et cetera – Fresno State is expected to have inside linebacker Robert Stanley back in the rotation after missing two games with a knee injury.
Stanley can play the Mike and the Will inside linebacker positions.
“He has practiced well this week,” DeRuyter said. “He has worked his tail off in rehab so he can be a full-go.”
▪ Peck was on pace for 876 receiving yards while Johnson is on track for 784.8 and Jordan 778.8.
Dating to 1980 Fresno State has had three receivers with 700 or more receiving yards just twice – in 2013 when Davante Adams had 1,719, Isaiah Burse 1,026 and Josh Harper 1,011 and became the fifth trio in NCAA history with 1,000 each in a season; and in 1995 when Charles Jones had 1,171, Jahine Arnold 987 and Brian Roberson 758.
And, Fresno State this season has completed only 50✔ percent (128 of 256)✔ of its passes.
▪ DeRuyter, who started his Fresno State career 20-6 and with two Mountain West Conference championships in his first two seasons, is 30-29 into his fifth year. He last was at the .500 mark in his fourth career game, a loss at Tulsa.
▪ Utah State has won 25 of its past 29 at home, including 16 of 18 in conference play.
▪ The Bulldogs will have a short week when they return from Logan, Utah, playing Air Force on Friday at Bulldog Stadium. But there is a chance Peck could be back. He has progressed quickly through his rehab and did some straight-ahead running, light cutting and route running Thursday.
▪ Utah State has new coordinators for a third year in a row with Jovon Bouknight and Luke Wells working as co-offensive coordinators and Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver as co-defensive coordinators. In 2015, Josh Heupel was the offensive coordinator and Kevin Clune led the defense. In 2014, Kevin McGiven ran the offense and Todd Orlando the defense.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada