Fresno State plays its final non-conference game Saturday night, taking on Toledo and an explosive offense ranked eighth in the nation in scoring, averaging 51.0 points per game.
A shootout wouldn’t be unexpected – the total on the game opened at 63, the highest set by bookmakers on a Bulldogs’ game this season by 11.5 points. But Fresno State has the ability with its offense and its defense to take this game in a number of directions.
Both teams come in 2-1, making this a pivotal game for both the Bulldogs and Rockets.
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Run, Marcus, Run
Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion made a lot of plays in a victory at UCLA. High on the hit list: Third-and-1 at the UCLA 16-yard line on the Bulldogs’ second series. The call was a quarterback sneak and after taking the snap McMaryion took a quick peek and saw only big bodies in front of him. He improvised, took off to his right, got a block from wideout Jamire Jordan and moved the sticks with an easy 8-yard run.
McMaryion had scored on a perfectly executed read-option run on the first series, ended that second drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Riddering and finished with four rushing touchdowns and 66.7 percent passing for 270 yards.
The senior managed that game much better than an opening rout against an over-matched Idaho. He managed that game much better than a 21-14 loss at Minnesota when he forced a pass into coverage and was intercepted on a second-and-2 play when he easily could have run for a first down, whiffed on a run-pass option on a third-and-short play that was stuffed for a loss of 2 yards and missed some open shots down field.
“Just missed opportunities,” he said. “On my part, I think I left a lot on the field that I could have taken advantage of a bit more just being more true to my progressions and kind of staying within myself and the offense.”
McMaryion ended the UCLA game playing at a different level, and if he hits it on Saturday against Toledo the Bulldogs have a shot to control the flow of the game against the Rockets, who are at least as explosive as Fresno State.
But Toledo’s offense has to be on the field to show that explosiveness. When the Rockets lost to Miami in Week 2, the Hurricanes had touchdown drives of 76, 61, 58, 75, 70 and 75 yards. They dominated time of possession (35 minutes 29 seconds to 24:31) and offensive plays (76 to 59).
Toledo is 1-6 the past five-plus seasons when running fewer than 60 plays.
McMaryion and the Bulldogs have the ability to stay on the field and sustain drives – they were 12 of 18 on third downs in their victory at UCLA and are fifth in the nation converting third-down plays at a 57.8 percent clip.
A run game obviously would help …
A running issue
The Bulldogs have yet to get their run game going – in two games against FBS opponents Minnesota and UCLA they have averaged just 3.1 yards on 76 plays.
They averaged 3.6 against the Golden Gophers, who have allowed 5.0 yards per rush in their other three games and are 12th of 14 in the Big Ten in rushing defense.
They averaged 2.9 against the Bruins, who have allowed 4.3 yards per rush in their other two games and are seventh in the Pac-12.
The three-back rotation of Jordan Mims, Josh Hokit and Dejonte O’Neal has carried the football 58 times in those games and gained 2 yards or less 31 times.
Fresno State could find some room against the Rockets, who have struggled to stop the run when playing FBS opponents. Toledo is allowing 6.0 rushing yards per play and 265.0 rushing yards per game in a loss to Miami and a win over Nevada.
Fresno State got a look at the new rule allowing teams to fair catch a kickoff inside the 25-yard line, and then take possession at the 25.
UCLA did it, and for the Bruins it just looked like further capitulation. They were having little to no success moving the football consistently against the Bulldogs’ defense, so why not take a shot breaking something on a kickoff return?
But does it make sense for Fresno State?
The Bulldogs, who have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2008, have had a chance to return only four kickoffs. Those returns have gone for an average of 13.8 yards, and they have taken possession following a return at the 7-, 22-, 7- and 15-yard lines.
The first of those returns was set back by an illegal block penalty, but the return was only 12 yards to the 14-yard line.
Fresno State is last in the Mountain West and 121st in the nation in kickoff returns.
Toledo has had seven kickoffs returned against it in three games and is allowing just 16.3 yards per return, ranking third in the Mid-American Conference.