Despite the preseason polls and long odds in Las Vegas that stacked up against Fresno State winning the Mountain West, it was not that far-fetched to envision the Bulldogs reaching the fourth week of the conference football season and a matchup against two-time defending champion San Diego State near the top of the West Division.
It started with the schedule, more manageable this season instead of the back-to-back road games that started each of the past two seasons.
But last week’s 38-0 dismantling of New Mexico put Fresno State in a place few would have expected at this point: First place in the division with the Aztecs in second at 2-1 heading into Saturday night’s game at SDCCU Stadium.
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The Bulldogs are a 7.5-point underdog according to most oddsmakers.
The winner will gain a huge advantage in the division race – if it is Fresno State, it will have a two-game lead on the Aztecs; if it is San Diego State, it will hold a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Here are four things to watch:
1. Take a shot
Fresno State had a chance to beat man coverage and make some plays well downfield in its victory over New Mexico, and Marcus McMaryion hit Jamire Jordan on a 70-yard touchdown and KeeSean Johnson on a 75-yard strike that set up another score.
The Bulldogs also misfired on a couple of deep throws in that game when receivers were running open.
They could get some shots against the Aztecs, as well.
San Diego State with its 3-3-5 has been solid against the pass and with its pressures can generate pass rush – the Aztecs are second in the conference with 17 sacks, accounting for 122 yards in losses. But they also have been vulnerable at times deep, and it is not as if they have faced high-flying passing offenses to this point.
San Diego State has allowed 18 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, ranking fifth in the conference. It also has allowed 13 plays of 30 or more yards to rank ninth and four pass plays of 50 or more yards to rank 10th.
The Aztecs have faced six FBS opponents and five of them are ranked 87th in the nation or lower in passing offense – Boise State (87th), Northern Illinois (88th), Stanford (91st), UNLV (113th) and Air Force (123rd).
2. 3-3-5, the advanced course
The Bulldogs faced a 3-3-5 defense when it played Nevada, with good results.
The offensive line and center Aaron Mitchell had no issues with line calls or adjustments and McMaryion got off to an incendiary start, hitting his first 12 passes and finishing the first half 21 of 24 for 276 yards with two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs’ quarterback cooled considerably, but with a 31-14 lead at halftime offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer leaned on the run game on 26 of the 35 plays Fresno State ran in the second half. It rushed for 156 yards at 6.0 yards per play.
A more consistent effort could play large, but San Diego State will serve as the upper-division course for McMaryion and the Bulldogs’ offensive line.
The Aztecs are much more deeply invested in the 3-3-5, running it under coach Rocky Long through back-to-back conference championship seasons and six consecutive bowl games. San Diego State is leading the MW in total defense and has been at the top of the conference for the past three seasons.
Nevada is in its first season running a 3-3-5, its players still learning how to use all of its moving parts to its advantage.
Big difference there.
3. Free points
When San Diego State has lost games over the past few years, its opponent has been able to take advantage of an oddball score.
Boise State last week had a punt return touchdown and a fumble return touchdown in taking down the Aztecs 31-14. When San Diego State lost last season at South Alabama, the Jaguars had a score off a fumble return. Colorado State rolled up a lot of yards in beating the Aztecs last season, but also had a score on a punt return. San Diego State was in a one-score game in the fourth quarter at Penn State in 2015 and the Nittany Lions pulled away after returning a fumble 71 yards for a touchdown.
When trying to pull an upset, free points always come in handy. But can the Bulldogs generate a defensive or special teams’ score?
Fresno State does have a Pick 6 this season – cornerback Jaron Bryant returned an interception for a touchdown against Nevada.
But that was the Bulldogs’ first defensive score since Shannon Edwards had an interception return touchdown at Ole Miss in 2015, a gap of 27 games.
Fresno State also has not scored on a kickoff return since 2008, 114 games. It has not scored on a punt return since 2013, 56 games. It has not scored off a blocked punt since 2014, 35 games. It has not scored off a blocked field goal since 2011, 71 games.
That could come into play against the Aztecs. It would not be a stunner to see this game turn on free points coming on special teams or defense.
As was proven in the Bulldogs’ victory over New Mexico, gaining turnovers is not enough. Fresno State forced two, the offense got only one field goal out of them and has scored just 40 points (four touchdowns, four field goals) off 13 turnovers.
4. Home on the road
The Bulldogs should have put McMaryion’s bed on the equipment truck and taken it to San Diego or arranged travel for anyone in Dinuba who wanted to go to the game –anything to make their quarterback feel more at home on the road.
The difference in his home and road splits is just as nonsensical.
In games at Bulldog Stadium, McMaryion has completed 69.4 percent of his passes (43 of 62) for 698 yards (232.7 per game) with seven touchdowns and one interception. He is averaging 11. 3 yards per pass attempt and his passing efficiency rating is 197.96.
In road games, he has completed a solid 61.2 percent of his passes (30 of 49), but has only 268 passing yards with no touchdowns. He is averaging just 5.5 yards per pass attempt and has an efficiency rating of 107.16.
There is not a large difference in the number of passes home and road, either. He is averaging 20.7 passes per game at home and 16.3 on the road.
Stints at No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Washington explain some of that. He did not start either game. But the Bulldogs also played at San Jose State, a team that has allowed opposing quarterbacks to put together an efficiency rating of 141.61, the third highest in the Mountain West.
McMaryion was 15 of 26 (57.7 percent) against the Spartans, throwing for just 136 yards. His efficiency rating in that game was 101.63.
A fast start for the Bulldogs’ quarterback might take care of all of that.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at SDCCU Stadium (54,000)
- Records: Bulldogs 4-2, 3-0 Mountain West; Aztecs 6-1, 2-1
- TV/radio: CBSSN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Aztecs lost at home to Boise State on Saturday 31-14 and are in second place in the West Division. The Broncos shut down running back Rashaad Penny, who has been the Mountain West offensive player of the week four times this season. Penny gained just 53 yards on 21 plays and San Diego State, the two-time defending conference champion, had just 323 total yards in the loss, 83 of it coming on the ground. The Aztecs are leading the conference in total defense, allowing only 311.4 yards per game.