Fresno State (9-4) gets a second shot at a 10th victory this season and adding another trophy to go along with the Valley Trophy, Old Oil Can and Milk Can Trophy it took home after beating San Jose State, San Diego State and Boise State.
A Hawaii Bowl matchup against Houston (7-4) isn’t an easy spot. The Bulldogs, coming off a loss to Boise State in the Mountain West championship game, are in another intriguing matchup with some star power to it.
When and where: 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
Radio: KFIG (940 AM), KGST (AM 1600)
Line: Fresno State +2.5
Here are some players to watch …
Ed Oliver, nose tackle
Oliver won the Outland Trophy, presented to the best interior lineman in college football. He has averaged 1.54 tackles for loss per game through his career, most in the nation.
That’s 37.5 TFL’s in just 24 games.
The Bulldogs have faced a number of odd-front defenses, but Oliver adds to a Houston front seven that is very athletic and physical.
That front is one reason the Cougars have played very well against some very good offenses. Houston has played four teams ranked in the top 26 in scoring offense and held every one of them well under their average point total.
- No. 6 Arizona, averaging 41.8 points per game, lost to the Cougars 19-16.
- No. 8 Southern Methodist, averaging 40.2, lost 35-22.
- No. 16 South Florida, averaging 38.3, lost 28-24.
- No. 26 Texas Tech, averaging 34.3, beat Houston 27-24.
The Bulldogs are averaging 26.7 points per game, ranking eighth in the Mountain West, and have topped 30 points just once in their past seven games.
D’Eriq King, quarterback
Set aside the plays King has made in the passing game since making his first start in Game No. 9 against East Carolina – he had explosive pass plays in that game of 41, 32, 39, 75, 62 and 35 yards and has 15 in his three starts.
The Cougars’ quarterback is just as dangerous in the run game, making plays off read option, on quarterback draws and sweeps or when scrambling from pass rush.
The sophomore is tied for the team lead with eight rushing touchdowns, five coming in the past three games, and is a threat in the red zone, where he has rushed the football 12 times and ended up in the end zone seven times.
With King at quarterback, Houston has averaged 7.8 yards per play, up from 5.7 in the first eight games of the season. Only one team in the nation is averaging better than 7.8 yards per play: Oklahoma, at 8.4.
But that quick-strike ability will test the Bulldogs’ defense, which has for the most part made opposing offenses sustain drives to get into the end zone.
Fresno State has allowed only three touchdown drives of less than two minutes over its past eight games, two on short fields. Wyoming went 80 yards in just 1:52 in the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs’ 13-7 victory. UNLV had a 1:47 drive following a turnover on a fumbled punt, going 24 yards in four plays in a 26-16 victory. Boise State had a 4-yard drive in 1:19 following a 36-yard punt return in winning the Mountain West Conference championship game.
Houston has six touchdown drives that have taken less than two minutes off the clock in the three games started by King.
Steven Dunbar, wide receiver
Dunbar is a big (6-foot-3), physical and athletic wideout and that will make him a tough matchup for the Bulldogs’ secondary. He has become a weapon in the three games King has started, working opposite the Cougars’ leading receiver Linell Bonner.
Dunbar has been targeted 23 times and has 16 receptions for 349 yards, 21.8 yards per catch. Included are 11 first downs and touchdowns of 75 and 61 yards. He has six receptions of 30 or more yards this season, five in those three games.
In the Cougars’ first eight games, he had 50 receptions for 524 yards and one score.
The Bulldogs have not had a lot of footballs go over their heads – they have allowed 29 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, second in the Mountain West and tied for 11th in the nation. But all it takes is one. In the conference championship loss to Boise State, the Broncos set up the winning touchdown with a 59-yard shot to Cedrick Wilson.
The Bulldogs made a tremendous leap in the first year under coach Jeff Tedford. Can they make another in 2018, contend for a Mountain West championship and maybe get into the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl game?
The answers are yes, yes, and we’ll see.
The Hawaii Bowl matchup with Houston will be provide a clue how far away the Bulldogs might be in competing with the best Group of Five and Power Five opponents – next season they have games at Minnesota and at UCLA, which will be nothing like playing at Alabama and at Washington.
There has been a large disparity in size, strength, speed and athleticism. Fresno State has not been close in recent losses to Nebraska, Utah, Ole Miss and USC.
The Bulldogs got a solid endorsement this season from San Diego State coach Rocky Long. After Fresno State beat up the Aztecs, Long addressed the strength of the Mountain West.
“I think that the top four or five teams in the conference can play against anybody and play well,” Long said. “I mean, before Fresno State got their run going and got their system established on offense and defense they hung in there with Alabama and they hung in there with Washington.
“I bet you it would be a completely different game right now with the way they’re playing. I bet you they could play real well against them right now, a lot better than Tennessee did.”
Alabama had routed the Volunteers that day, 45-7.
But the Bulldogs have to go out and prove it.
Houston has a victory this season at Arizona. Last season, it beat No. 7 Oklahoma on a neutral field and took out No. 15 Louisville at home. If the Bulldogs hold up well against the Cougars, that is a good sign. If not, they’ll at least have a better idea how far they have to go this offseason.
Marcus McMaryion, quarterback
Houston does not give up a lot of long plays from scrimmage – just 53 plays of 20 or more yards, 10 rushing and 43 passing.
The Bulldogs will have to make some plays to stay on the field and sustain drives and come third down, the focus will be on their quarterback.
McMaryion is averaging more yards per attempt this season than Derek Carr did in 2013 – 7.9 to 7.7 – but he has struggled on third downs.
He has completed only 36 of 89 third-down throws (40.4 percent), is averaging just 4.8 yards per play and only 18 of those attempts has resulted in a first down.
To the plus, McMaryion can make plays with his feet with either designed runs or improvising should a play break down.
But how he navigates the third downs in front of him will play large for Fresno State.
Houston has been surprisingly vulnerable at times, too.
The Cougars have a head-scratching loss at Tulane, which went 5-7 and is 10th of 12 in the American Athletic Conference in total offense. In that game, the Green Wave converted on 8 of 15 third downs (53.3 percent).
Houston also allowed a 3-9 East Carolina team to convert third downs at a 54.6 percent clip and a 2-10 Tulsa hit on 52.9 percent.
KeeSean Johnson, wide receiver
Houston is ranked eighth of 12 in the American Athletic Conference in passing defense, allowing 268.1 yards per game, and has been susceptible to the high-volume receiver.
In its four losses, opposing receivers have had some big days.
Texas Tech: Keke Coutee turned 12 targets into 11 receptions for 166 yards including a 77-yard touchdown and another explosive play that went for 24 yards.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane only threw the ball 18 times, but Keenan Johnson had seven targets and five receptions for 91 yards and one touchdown.
Memphis: Anthony Miller, a consensus All-American, had 17 targets and caught 10 passes for 178 yards. He did not score a touchdown, but he had explosive plays of 36 and 52 yards and seven of those receptions went for a first down.
Tulane: Terren Encalade was on the receiving end of eight of the 17 passes completed by the Green Wave, racking up 186 yards and a 64-yard go-ahead touchdown with 6:13 to go.
Johnson has had some high-target games for the Bulldogs and ranks third in the Mountain West Conference with 69 receptions and eight touchdowns. Opportunity could be there.
The junior wideout has led Fresno State in targets in 10 of their 13 games and twice was tied for the most targets.
He had 12 targets in the conference title game, eight more than the next Bulldogs’ receiver.
He also had six more targets than the Bulldogs’ next receiver in victories over Nevada and Brigham Young.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada