Here's the third of my series of positional matchups with Utah's opponents. I probably won't be able to do the next one for a couple of days, hope you enjoy!
Travis Wilson has proved time and time again that he is a vastly superior QB to what Mountain West teams can throw at him. In games last year against Fresno and CSU, and against USU in 2013, Wilson has played very well and led the team to victory. He is far and away the better QB in this game. Fresno appears to have found its starter in Zach Greenlee, who has looked much better in camp than the second option, which is true freshman Chason Virgil. Greenlee has the edge over Virgil in experience, although he is only a redshirt sophomore himself. Last year he saw a little bit of playing time, completing 44% of his passes for 213 yards, 1 TD, and 0 INTs. I think Wilson will move the offense extremely well and he'll probably have the opportunity to rest in the second half, giving Kendal Thompson a chance to show what he can do.
Running Back- Utah
Fresno has a talented guy returning in Marteze Waller. Waller was one of the top RBs in the MWC last year, running for over 1300 yards, scoring 11 TDs, and averaging 6.1 yards per carry. However, I feel that these numbers are indicative of the lower quality of defenses he played against, as against Utah he only went for 61 yards, didn't score, and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Devontae Booker is the much better RB here, and if this one gets out of hand, Joe Williams and maybe some younger guys will have an opportunity to show what they can do as well.
Wide Receiver- Utah
Fresno lost their top receiver, Josh Harper, to graduation this year. Harper caught 90 balls for 1097 yards and 7 TDs, and was clearly the favorite target. The next best receiver, Aaron Peck, had a huge drop off in production catching only 32 passes for 419 yards and 3 TDs. Needless to say, Fresno is going to have a hard time replacing Harper. The Bulldogs return Peck and also Delvon Hardaway, who had an ok year as a freshman in 2014, catching 23 passes for 279 yards and 2 TDs. Utah's receivers appear to be bigger, more talented, and the starters at least are more experienced. Big, fast guys like Kenneth Scott, Tim Patrick (if healthy), and Tyrone Smith should have a good game against Fresno.
Tight End- Even
Fresno doesn't use their tight ends a lot, but they do have one player who looks like he could be a threat. Chad Olsen will be the starting TE, and returns for the Bulldogs. He played as a true freshman last year and compiled a decent stat line, catching 13 balls for 150 yards and 4 TDs. Utah appears to have some really athletic guys at TE, but the problem is that none of them are very experienced. I think by the time this game arrives, my prediction will probably shift to favor Utah, but based solely on what we've seen in the preseason, I can't definitively say that Utah has the better starting TE.
Offensive Line- Utah
This is a fairly easy pick. Utah's offensive line is simply bigger, stronger, and more athletic than Fresno's. Game experience for the two teams is about even, as Fresno has three guys returning with at least two years of experience. On paper, the OL actually looks like it'll be one of the Bulldogs' strongest areas, as they opened all sorts of holes for Waller to run through last year, but they're going to have a hard time moving Utah's defensive line to create running room. The line struggled mightily last year with pass protection allowing 2.86 sacks per game, which ranked 105th out of all FBS teams. They gave up 7 sacks to Utah in 2014, and I expect to see more of the same this year.
Defensive Line- Utah
Another easy pick here. Utah's line is bigger, stronger, deeper, and more experienced, and should bottle up Waller and be all over the QB. Fresno's defense was average last year at getting into the backfield, coming in about middle of the pack in sacks (65th) and tackles for loss (61st). They did struggle a bit against the run though, their average yards per carry allowed was 4.6, and they surrendered 201.9 yards per game on the ground, good for only 98th in the nation. Fresno lost one of their best pass rushers from last year, tackle Tyeler Davison, who had 7.5 sacks. About the only proven player for the line this year DE Todd Hunt, who had 43.5 tackles last year, 5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in 2014.
Utah has three of the best, most experienced linebackers in the PAC 12 starting for them this year. Norris, Paul, and Whittingham are superior to any of the linebackers that Fresno will put on the field this year. Sunia Tauteoli and Uaea Masina add some good depth for when the starters need a breather. Fresno took a big hit at LB in the offseason, losing their other best pass rusher, OLB Donovan Lewis, to graduation. Lewis was in the offensive backfield a lot, and recorded 6 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last year. Having said that, Fresno does return a few decent players in Kyrie Wilson, Ejiro Ederaine, and Jeff Camilli, but keep in mind that these are the same guys who struggled to stop the run last year, and only Ederaine recorded more than one sack in 2014, with 2.
Fresno was pretty bad at defending the pass last year as well, coming in 96th in the nation in yards allowed per game. A lot of this had to do with the fact that the line and linebackers struggled to defend against the run. Oftentimes a DB would have to be brought up to help with run support, opening up holes in the secondary for opposing teams to exploit. The Bulldogs do return five of last year's top DBs, including their best CB, Charles Washington. Washington recorded 70 tackles, 2 INTs, 7 pass breakups, and even a sack in 2014. The concerning stat for him, though, is how many tackles he had to make. When a CB is tackling a lot, it means they're giving up a lot of completions, which was the case for Washington last year. Another pretty damning statistic is Fresno's team passing efficiency defense. QBs who played against Fresno last year averaged a passer efficiency of 156.18, which ranks Fresno 118th out of 125 FBS teams. Utah's secondary, on the other hand, appears to be improved from last year, and actually looks like it's shaping up to be one of the best position groups on the team this year. They match up well against Fresno's WRs, and should play very well against an inexperienced QB. The secondary should have a relatively easy time at limiting pass production and I look for them to snag some INTs as well.
Fresno returns their place kicker from last year, Cody Kroening. Kroening's performance from last year was, in a word, "meh". He connected on only 64.3% of his field goal attempts, with a long of only 44 yards. Andy Phillips is the better kicker by leaps and bounds.
There won't be a game this year where the opposing team has the advantage at punter. Tom Hackett is the best punter in the nation and looks to defend his Ray Guy trophy in 2015. The punter for Fresno State is Garrett Swanson, and he is pretty good at precision kicking, even if he doesn't have a huge leg. He averaged 40.7 yards on 82 punts, and placed 26 of his punts inside the opponent's 20 yard line.
None of Fresno's leading returners are back from last year, so they're looking for someone to replace and hopefully boost the production of last year's returners. There's really nowhere to go but up for the Bulldogs on kick returns, as last year they ranked 111th in the nation, averaging only 18.93 yards per return and didn't run any kickoffs back for touchdowns. Punt returns were better, Fresno ranked 34th in the country and did have one punt return for a touchdown. Utah's new candidates for returns are promising, and have showed elite speed and agility in camp. The names include Britain Covey, Joe Williams, and Cory Butler-Byrd. In fact, these guys are performing so well in camp that the only guy with any experience returning punts, Bubba Poole, isn't even listed on the depth chart at punt returner anymore.
Coach Whittingham is easily the better coach of the two here, and it's not close. That being said, Tim DeRuyter is still a decent head coach, and has compiled a 26-14 record as the HC of Fresno State. In his three years there, the Bulldogs have won a conference championship in 2013 and a first place division finish in all three of his years at Fresno State. However, this is more an indictment of the weakness of the West division of the Mountain West conference, as Fresno was able to win it last year with a 6-7 overall regular season record. DeRuyter appears to have job security going into this season, but if he can't improve from last years record, he may only last a couple more years.
The X-factors for this game are: First, the matchups between Utah's secondary and Fresno's wide receivers; and second, Utah's ability to take over the game early. Home field advantage won't be much of a factor for Fresno, as the Bulldogs struggle to fill the stadium, averaging only 34,876 last year in a stadium that seats 41,000. The only way that Fresno will be able to hang with the Utes is if their receivers are able to make big plays, since I don't see the rushing attack as being able to be effective against our front 7. This spells trouble for the Bulldogs, as none of their returning receivers showed the ability to be reliable second option behind Josh Harper last year, and Utah's DBs have shown the ability to lock up onto the receivers and effectively defend the pass during fall camp. If Fresno allows Utah to explode out of the gates, the game will be over by the end of the first quarter. They'll have to figure out a way to keep Booker from running all over them and to keep Travis Wilson from having another performance against them like he did last year. Frankly, I don't see it happening.
PREDICTION- Utah wins by a mile
This will be Utah's biggest margin of victory of the year. Just like last year, I don't think that Fresno has the horsepower to hang with Utah. The Utes will jump out to an early lead and rest the starters for most of the second half. Travis Wilson and Devontae Booker are going to have big games, and the second half will be a great opportunity for some of the younger guys on both sides of the ball to get some valuable game experience.
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