Following yet another wild trip to the Hawaiian Islands, the Fresno State Bulldogs pay a visit to another familar foe from the recently deceased Western Athletic Conference. Idaho began its trek through the FBS hinterlands as an independent with four straight losses, but surprised Temple last week for its first win of the season. The Vandals, under first-year head coach Paul Petrino, have not been as helpless as they were perceived in the preseason. Though they are heavy underdogs (the spread currently sits around 27 points), the Bulldogs' defensive adventures have been perilous enough to make fans wonder what kind of game this will be.
What to watch - Idaho: The Vandals offense is no great shakes, but they are not absymal. Much of the credit for this goes to quarterback Chad Chalich who, while he has not set the world on fire, currently sits in the middle of the FBS pack in passer rating and yards per attempt, as well as the top third in completion percentage. Most surprisingly, he has yet to throw an interception in 150 attempts, the best figure in the nation.
What the Vandals have struggled with are pass protection and holding onto the football. Idaho is last in the nation in sacks allowed, 28 in five games, and opponents have recovered nine of ten fumbles thus far on the year, including one backbreaker that may have cost UI its upset bid against MAC power Northern Illinois. Fumble recovery is not a skill, of course, but if they give the Bulldogs opportunities, this game could get away from the Vandals quickly.
Fumblitis aside, Idaho's defense has not been able to match the performance on the other side of ball. They have given up an average of 38.6 yards per game thus far, 115th in the nation (though to be fair, the 'Dogs sit at 38.3 ppg, good for 113th), and are no better than below average in any relevant measure.
What to watch - Fresno State: Judging from their quick start in front of a lukewarm crowd in Hawaii, it would be surprising to see the Bulldogs take the field with a lesser degree of intensity than they showed in burying the Warriors early. The Kibbie Dome is small, but it is intimate and it has affected opponents in the early going: NIU had 11 penalties, while Temple had six. It will be important to silence the crowd with an early score or two.
How the Bulldogs start, however, will be irrelevant if they do not learn how to finish. Opponents have outscored Fresno 63-24 over four games, and much of that falls on a secondary that hasn't lived up to expectations. Derron Smith and L.J. Jones have been disappointments. Fresno is dead last among FBS schools in passing defense, allowing an average of 332.5 yards per contest. This is unfortunate because it has obscured the fact that the front seven has been quite good, among the nation's best in sacks and tackles for loss. They've shown little ability to defend a lead when offenses are forced to get one-dimensional, something that will have to change in order to put momentum into the team's BCS aspirations.
On offense, the 'Dogs learned that they can rely on their wide receiver depth when their stars have off-days. Isaiah Burse missed the majority of the game after an incorrectly called targeting penalty, but Josh Harper continued his outstanding 2013 and Aaron Peck proved that he should earn some playing time. Fresno's running attack also had its best game of the year. Lastly, the 'Dogs will likely want to see some improvement in their third-down conversion rate (which currently sits at 34.3%), because the team's percentage on fourth down (6 out of 7) is another thing which isn't likely to last.
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