Fresno State takes on the Wyoming Cowboys on Saturday at Bulldog Stadium with a chance to run its record to 5-1 and 2-0 in the Mountain West Conference.
The Cowboys are 2-4 and 0-2 with losses to Boise State and at Hawaii, but will present some challenges to a Bulldogs’ offense that generated only 271 yards of offense and 21 points last week in a victory at Nevada. Fresno State had difficulty a year ago in a chilly game at Wyoming, coming away with a 13-7 victory, and its defense will likely again have to control the Cowboys to come away with a victory.
To the plus there for the Bulldogs, Wyoming has struggled playing a freshman quarterback in Tyler Vander Waal (replacing Firebaugh’s Josh Allen, who went in the first round of the NFL draft) and rank last in the conference in scoring (they have 11 touchdowns in six games, 17.5 points per game) and total offense (292.5 yards per game).
Here are some things to watch …
No offense to David Woodward, the Utah State linebacker leading the Mountain West in tackles per game with 11.5, but he has made only 10 solo tackles while assisting on 36.
Would Butkus approve?
The Bulldogs’ Jeff Allison had a career-high 17 tackles in a 21-3 victory at Nevada (11 of them solo) and is playing the best football of his career for a defense that is leading the conference in allowing only 15.6 points per game.
All three Fresno State linebackers finished in double-digits in tackles against Nevada – George Helmuth and James Bailey each had 10 – and of the 37 total tackles, 23 were anywhere from a tackle for loss to within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage.
All three linebackers will likely be involved in some sudden collisions Saturday night against a run-heavy Wyoming offense.
Those plays will likely factor large in the outcome.
First on the watch list: the Cowboys’ first-down runs.
Wyoming leads with the run – on first down, 70.3 percent of its plays have been rushes for a hefty 5.8 yards per play.
More often than not it has been running back Nico Evans, who is one game played shy of qualifying for the national and league leaders but is leading the Mountain West in rushing yards (613) and rushing yards per game (153.0) in just four games.
On first downs he is averaging 9.4 yards per play, which includes a 75-yard run; even without it, though, he is averaging a 7.9 yards per play.
Evans ranks among the national leaders among running backs with 25 or more carries ...
|Running back, school||Plays||Yards||Avg.|
Darrell Henderson, Memphis
Travis Etienne, Clemson
Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas
Nico Evans, Wyoming
Mike Epstein, Illinois
The Bulldogs are allowing 3.9 yards on first-down runs and obviously will be in much better position if that number is less than four rather than more than five.
Second on the watch list: on third-and-short, medium or long, Fresno State and its trio of linebackers will be in full-on attack mode.
Wyoming has been awful when rushing it on third-and-short.
The Cowboys have run the ball 10 times needing 1-3 yards to convert a first down, and have gained a total of 4 yards on those plays.
The 0.4 yards per play on third-and-short is, not surprisingly, the worst in the nation.
But, really, any third down is a tough go for Wyoming.
The Cowboys have moved the sticks on only 29.3 percent of their 82 third-down plays and are ranked last in the Mountain West and 129th of 130 in the nation.
Beat the press
Wyoming will put its cornerbacks in a lot of man coverage, so KeeSean Johnson and the Bulldogs’ outside receivers could create opportunities for themselves off the line of scrimmage and then down the field against some beatable corners.
The Cowboys start a fourth-year junior in Antonio Hull, but he is backed up by true freshman Jalani Ellison. Opposite Hull, they start redshirt freshman Keyon Blankenbaker and he is backed up by sophomore Sidney Washington Jr., a Bullard High product.
The Bulldogs need to win those matchups.
The Cowboys’ run defense has been solid, allowing only 3.8 yards per play. The Bulldogs’ rushing offense, obviously, still is a work in progress.
If Fresno State makes a big play, it most likely will be in the pass game.
Wyoming has allowed 24 explosive plays of 20 or more yards, 19 of them pass plays. It has allowed 10 plays of 30 or more yards, nine of them pass plays.
The Cowboys also have only four interceptions and just one by a cornerback, Hull.