Fresno State is bowl-eligible after going just 1-11 last season and there is no discounting that. For the Bulldogs, it’s big. But out there still for the taking is a goal of winning the Mountain West Conference, and the Bulldogs have a one-game lead plus a head-to-head tiebreaker over second-place San Diego State, the two-time defending champ.
They are in control of their fate, have a clear run there.
Clear sailing? Not so much.
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Fresno State can clinch a spot in the conference championship game if it wins two of its next three games, at Hawaii, at Wyoming and against Boise State.
The Rainbow Warriors, 3-6 and 1-5 in the Mountain West, would appear the soft spot there, even on the road. But if Hawaii follows a blueprint played against Fresno State by UNLV and BYU the past two weeks, the Rainbow Warriors could become a tough out.
The Rebels won at Fresno State and the Cougars made a run at it by controlling the football, converting third downs and cutting the number of possessions in the game.
Against UNLV, the Bulldogs had the ball only 10, times: One was a one-play kneel down before the end of the first half, and another was wiped out by a fumbled punt. Against BYU, they had the football only nine times.
The Bulldogs need to make plays to get Hawaii off the field, which is the first thing to watch for Fresno State in this game …
There are a lot of ways to win or lose a football game, but for the Rainbow Warriors there seems to be a very clear marker: their offensive efficiency on third downs.
In games they have won, they have been able to move the sticks, stay on the field and sustain drives. In games they have lost, they have struggled to make plays whether rushing or passing, whether it’s third-and-short or third-and-long.
The difference is stark: In its three wins Hawaii has converted 21 of 41 third-down plays (51.2 percent) and in its six losses it is 28 of 81 (34.6 percent).
This is relevant to the Bulldogs because they have played two very low-possession games in a loss to UNLV and a victory over BYU in part because the Rebels and the Cougars were able to shorten games and often employed the short passing game to make plays and move the sticks when facing a third down.
UNLV was 5 of 15 on third down, but also 2 of 2 on fourth down. BYU was 7 of 14 on third down, but 0 of 2 on fourth down.
Add them all up and that’s 41.4 percent on third down and 42.4 percent including the fourth down plays.
Fresno State is leading the Mountain West in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert only 40 of 122 third downs (32.8 percent).
Keep the Rainbow Warriors around there, the Bulldogs will have a good shot to win.
Fresno State will match up against another defense in Hawaii that moves around, runs a lot of different pressures, and it has worked. The Rainbow Warriors are ranked second in the Mountain West in sacks, fourth in tackles for loss.
But enter Aaron Mitchell and the Bulldogs’ offensive line has excelled when similarly challenged, making the right adjustments, marking and locking onto the correct targets.
They rolled up 504 yards and 41 points in beating Nevada, 526 yards and 38 points in a win over New Mexico. They completely controlled the line of scrimmage when winning 27-3 at San Diego State, averaging 6.94 yards per play, a number the Aztecs had allowed just once in conference play going back to 2012.
The Bulldogs did not allow a single tackle for loss to San Diego State, which is leading the Mountain West in total defense.
Fresno State is tied with Colorado State for first in the conference and fourth in the nation in sacks allowed, just six. It also is first in the Mountain West and tied with Army for second in the nation in tackles for loss allowed, just 29 or 3.2 per game.
If they can confound the Rainbow Warriors’ front seven the end result could be very similar, setting up some big plays for the Bulldogs’ offense.
Next on the list of things to watch?
Taking advantage of a secondary that will be very vulnerable if the line handles the Hawaii pressures and quarterback Marcus McMaryion can find a comfy spot in the pocket.
Let it rip
Fresno State got Jamire Jordan a little more involved in the offense in the victory over BYU, and that is always a good thing. The junior wideout caught just three passes on four targets, but one was a 50-yard shot down the field.
The Bulldogs will have their chances to make plays down the field at Hawaii, be it Jordan, KeeSean Johnson or Da’Mari Scott.
The Rainbow Warriors have allowed 45 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which is the most in the Mountain West and 128th of 130 in the nation.
That defense also has allowed opposing quarterbacks to put together an efficiency rating of 170.26, the highest in the conference and 127th in the nation.
They’re not even throwing it that much, either. Hawaii is defending only 28.2 pass plays per game, which is only the sixth highest in the MW.
The Bulldogs and McMaryion are averaging almost four explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards in conference play (19 in five games) and could build on that number considering the Rainbow Warriors’ struggles defending the pass.
Fresno State, by the way, is 5-0 when Jordan has two or more receptions in a game.
Win first down
This is a danger spot for a Bulldogs defense that has played well against offenses that didn’t have much when what they did best was torpedoed or taken away altogether.
The Bulldogs crushed New Mexico in its option, and the Lobos weren’t going to win throwing the football. Same with San Diego State while running back Rashaad Penny was gaining just 69 yards on 15 plays, 91 yards under his season average.
Nevada quarterback Ty Gangi didn’t have much figured out when that first Mountain West game rolled around, though the Wolf Pack has put up 35 or more points in three of their four games since losing to the Bulldogs.
San Jose State couldn’t run it or pass it at a high level.
Hawaii will be the most competently diverse offense that Fresno State has faced since it lost at Washington in September. For the Bulldogs, the team closest to the Rainbow Warriors was UNLV, and that didn’t work out too well for them.
Hawaii has a running back in Diocemy Saint Juste who is second in the Mountain West, averaging 138.3 yards per game. It has a quarterback in Dru Brown who is second in the conference in passing, averaging 249.4 yards per game.
The Rainbow Warriors often lead with the run, but run or pass, first down will be very important for the Bulldogs. They need to win there to throw Hawaii off schedule and get it to third down, where it has struggled.
Saint Juste is averaging 6 yards on his first-down runs, but winning there is possible.
When San Diego State won at Hawaii on Oct. 28, the Aztecs held the Rainbow Warriors to an average of just 2.6 yards on 13 first-down rushing plays. Hawaii got to third down with an average of 8.1 yards to go to stay on the field and converted just 2 of 14.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT HAWAII
- Saturday: 8 p.m. PST at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
- Records: Bulldogs 6-3, 4-1 Mountain West; Rainbow Warriors 3-6, 1-5
- TV/radio: KSEE24/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Rainbow Warriors lost at UNLV on Saturday 31-23, the sixth time in seven games they have been held to 23 points or fewer. In the seventh game, they beat San Jose State 37-26. Hawaii went into that game ranked 10th in the Mountain West Conference in scoring defense, allowing 34.6 points per game, and has struggled mostly against the pass. Opponents had put up an efficiency rating of 172.32, last in the conference and 128th of 130 in the nation. UNLV passed for 281 yards, a season high, in the victory over the Rainbow Warriors. And the Rebels are not exactly a strong passing team. In a loss to Utah State, they attempted 30 passes and completed only 13 for 85 yards. Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown completed 24 of 47 passes for 269 yards and one touchdown at UNLV, and ranks second in the conference in passing at 249.4 yards per game.