Fresno State gets a second shot at putting a victory over a Power Five conference opponent on its résumé, playing at UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
The Bruins are 0-2, having lost to Cincinnati and at No. 5 Oklahoma to open the Chip Kelly era — and actually opened as an underdog in this game. Fresno State was minus-1, before the line moved in favor of the Bruins. UCLA, though, can pose some problems for Fresno State and the Bulldogs still are looking for some answers as well.
Here are three things to watch:
Return on investment
Fresno State has done little with its opportunities on kickoff return, averaging just 13.8 yards on four returns, two by Jamire Jordan (15.5 ypr) and two by Brian Burt (12.0).
That streak of consecutive games without a kickoff return touchdown, which started in 2008 and is now at 123, doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.
Jordan had the longest return for the Bulldogs last season, breaking one 71 yards against Nevada. But the Bulldogs might want to give some other players a shot. In fall camp, they worked through a number of options, trying to find a best fit at accelerating through that initial line of bodies crashing into one another.
There is an opportunity this week.
As with most things, the Bruins aren’t covering kickoffs particularly well right now. Kicker J.J. Molson has hit the end zone six times for a touchback on nine kickoffs, but the three that have been returned have gone for 86, 35 and 35 yards.
Field position can’t hurt for a Fresno State offense that is not playing with much consistency, though in the loss at Minnesota the Bulldogs started second-half drives at their 42-, 40- and 37-yard lines and managed just one first down. The Bulldogs gained 16 yards on four plays including a 21-yard pass play to KeeSean Johnson, then went three-and-out gaining 4 yards and three-and-out gaining just 1 yard.
The Bulldogs will be without Netane Muti for the rest of the season, their starting left tackle going down in the loss at Minnesota with a torn Achilles’ tendon. The resulting moves had Christian Cronk back at left tackle,where he started all 14 games a year ago, and Fresno City College transfer Nick Abbs moving in at left guard.
As a group, the Bulldogs passed the physicality test against a Power Five opponent at Minnesota, and through two games are tied for first in the Mountain West in sacks allowed (1.0) and tackles for loss allowed (7.0).
But UCLA on Saturday will test more than their physicality. The Bruins have Power Five-level athletes, but they also are much more active this season under defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro than anything the Bulldogs have seen so far.
The Bruins have yet to have much success with it — they are ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense and eighth in both sacks and tackles for loss. But the potential is there, if the Bulldogs are not communicating well up front with the personnel changes.
“Back in the day when I was there, it was a little more vanilla,” said right guard Markus Boyer, who started his career at UCLA. “They were just playing a lot of 4-2 and then odd front with Eli Ankou, who is with the (Jacksonville)Jaguars now, and Tak McKinley, who is with the Falcons. Those guys, they were just playing vanilla.
“The new defensive coordinator, he brought in a lot of new stuff, a lot of movement and moving parts. It’s definitely a challenge to get used to for an offense.”
The tight end
The Bulldogs see quality pass-catching tight ends in practice every day starting with Jared Rice, but they haven’t had to worry much about the position in a rout of Idaho and a loss at Minnesota.
Through two games Fresno State opponents have targeted a tight end only four times, with one reception for 5 yards and another for 3.
UCLA’s leading receiver is Caleb Wilson, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end who can get down the field in the passing game. He has been targeted 16 times in the first two games by quarterbacks Wilton Speight and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, seven more times than any other UCLA receiver, and has eight receptions for 128 yards including a 65-yard play last week in a loss at Oklahoma.
Different offense and different quarterbacks than a year ago, but Wilson is a piece that UCLA has not been shy about putting into play.
Though limited to just five games due to a broken foot Wilson last season averaged 7.6 receptions per game, catching 38 passes for 490 yards and one touchdown.