Fresno State has a chance to make a statement Saturday when it takes on No. 6 Washington – maybe not on the scoreboard, but definitely with how it competes and executes on offense, defense and special teams.
The Bulldogs did all three fairly well a week ago at No. 1 Alabama, and how long has it has been since they put together back-to-back solid games?
It wasn’t last season, certainly.
Here are four things to watch as Fresno State goes up against its second top-10 opponent in as many weeks.
1. Cusick vs. Pettis – The Huskies’ Dante Pettis is one of the best ever at the art of returning punts, and this season he already has two return touchdowns in two games. He took one back 61 yards in an opening victory at Rutgers. Last week, in a rout of Montana, he cut, dodged and bolted 67 yards for a score to set a Pac-12 record with a seventh career punt return touchdown.
“He’s good,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “I think the guys blocked for him really hard up front because they understand that if they give him a little space, he has a good chance to make something happen.”
Why teams continue to kick the football to him is a bit of a mystery – accidents do happen, of course.
But Fresno State, which has had success to this point covering punts and kickoffs, also has a weapon in punter Blake Cusick who could keep Pettis in check.
Last season, Cusick punted 78 times and had only 10 returned for an average of 5.2 yards. Cusick can drive the ball with good hang time and his leg is stronger than it was last season – he is one of nine Bulldogs to hit personal records in all six physical tests at the end of the summer.
The Bulldogs last season were tied with Clemson for 16th in the nation in the fewest opponent punt returns – notable since in a 1-11 season the number of punts was way up there.
This is a matchup the Bulldogs can win. If Pettis spends the evening settling under punts and signaling for a fair catch, the Huskies are less explosive.
2. Take a shot – The Bulldogs had a good game plan against No. 1 Alabama. Unlikely to get much out of a run game against a rough Crimson Tide front seven, Fresno State tried to get the ball out and use short, quick passes. The Bulldogs threw on 41 of 63 snaps.
Quarterback Chason Virgil worked it well, completing 61.8 percent (there were five drops that hurt that percentage).
A similar plan against Washington would make sense, but the Bulldogs could hold some advantages with KeeSean Johnson, Da’Mari Scott, Derrion Grim or Jamire Jordan working down the field.
The Huskies’ starting corners a year ago both were second-round selections in the NFL Draft. Saturday, Washington is starting a junior in Jordan Miller and a redshirt freshman in Byron Murphy.
Rutgers and Montana couldn’t take advantage, but one is terrible and the other is an FCS program. Washington has allowed only two explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards.
Rutgers, it should be noted, has a passing efficiency rating of 97.51, ranking 118th in the nation.
With games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Washington, Fresno State will be one of five teams in history to play back-to-back games against teams that advanced to the College Football Playoff the previous year.
Fresno State, which is tied with Colorado State for first in the Mountain West with 12 pass plays of 20 yards or more, needs to take and hit a few shots.
3. Third-down execution – After playing at Washington, the Bulldogs will have a bye week before opening Mountain West Conference play Sept. 30 at home against Nevada. They could gain some credibility with better execution on third downs against the Huskies.
At Alabama, they moved the sticks on just 3 of 11 third-down plays, but operator error cost them.
There was a poor pass on a third-and-3. A third-and-1 rushing play busted. There was a dropped pass on one play and near-miss on another. A bad snap led to a 13-yard loss on another third down. Later, a poor decision on where to go with the football led to an interception.
These are plays Fresno State must start making.
The Bulldogs last season completed only 48.1 percent of their third-down passes (64 of 133) and had a passing efficiency rating of 99.80, by far their lowest on any down.
Rushing the football, they generated an average of 2.6 yards on 31 plays when it was third-and-short, which was the lowest in the conference.
Fresno State had 18 first downs in a 41-10 loss at No. 1 Alabama last week. The Crimson Tide played two Group of Five opponents last season and combined they had 17 first downs.
The passing numbers are up, thanks to that rout of Incarnate Word. But rushing the ball on third-and-short, the Bulldogs this season have gained just four yards on four plays and three of those plays were in the opener against the FCS Cardinals.
4. Stand up to the run – Fresno State gave up 305 rushing yards at Alabama at 7.8 yards per play. The latter was the most it had allowed since 2014. (Wyoming put up 374 yards at 8.7 yards per play when drilling the Bulldogs 45-17.)
Quarterback Jalen Hurts accounted for 154 of Alabama’s yards, but while Washington quarterback Jake Browning isn’t a threat to run, the challenge in stemming the run game this week could be more difficult. The Huskies have a large and physical offensive line and two stellar backs in Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, who rushed for 1,373 and 852 yards last season at 5.8 and 7.5 yards per pop, respectively.
Washington hasn’t pressed it much against Rutgers or Montana, but with the Huskies opening Pac-12 play next week on the road at Colorado, this is when they ramp up. Washington last season gained 91 and 126 yards on the ground in its first two games, put up 213 in an easy win in Game No. 3 over FCS Portland State and then ran through the Pac-12 averaging 230.0 yards per game at 5.7 yards per play.
Fresno State, for a second week in a row, will be challenged to match the physicality of a top 10-ranked, Power Five opponent.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT NO. 6 WASHINGTON
- Saturday: 6:30 p.m. in Seattle
- Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Huskies 2-0
- TV/radio: Pac-12 Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: After the Bulldogs lost 41-10 at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, the Huskies routed FCS school Montana 63-7 in their home opener. … Washington rose one spot to No. 6 in this week’s Top 25 poll of The Associated Press.
- Head-to-head: Fresno State and Washington meet for the fourth time, all in Seattle and all in September. Washington won 49-14 in 1979 and 21-20 in 2006. Fresno State won 35-16 in 2004.
- Local connection: Ricky McCoy is a Washington redshirt sophomore defensive lineman out of Roosevelt High. McCoy (6-2, 292) played in two games in 2016 but has yet to see time in 2017.
- More online: Check out Robert Kuwada’s updates and video at fresnobee.com/bulldogs or download the Bulldog Buzz mobile app
Finding the end zone
Washington running back Myles Gaskin has scored 25 rushing touchdowns, 10th on the school’s all-time list. The Bulldogs’ top four running backs have five:
- Josh Hokit 2
- Ronnie Rivers 1
- Dejonte O’Neal 1
- Jordan Mims 1