WEEK 13: Fresno State Bulldogs (4-6, 3-3 Mountain West) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (6-4, 3-3)
WHEN: Saturday, November 22 -- 7:30 PM, PST
WHERE: Mackay Stadium; Reno, NV (29,993)
RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively. The Wolf Pack broadcast can be heard in and around Reno on ESPN 94.5 FM.
SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs lead the series 26-18-1.
LAST MEETING: Fresno State beat Nevada 41-23 at Bulldog Stadium.
When Coach Tim DeRuyter arrived in Fresno over two years ago, he stated that the number one goal for the Bulldogs each and every year would be to win the conference title. He delivered on this commitment his first two years and, believe it or not, Fresno State is right in line to deliver on that promise a third time. The path to the title this year, however, has been paved by some other teams, whose losses have allowed the Bulldogs to stay in the race.
The road ahead will be a challenge, and it begins in Reno as the Bulldogs take on a talented Wolf Pack team loaded with 15 seniors playing their final game at Mackay Stadium. Everything is on the line for both teams, as the winner will gain a strong inside position in representing the West in the Mountain West Conference title game. The loser would be put completely out of the running. This is, without a doubt, the biggest game of the season for both teams.
What To Watch - Fresno State
1. Fresno State took a major step forward two weeks ago when they beat San Jose State at Bulldog Stadium 38-24. That step was a commitment to run the football. The Bulldogs have been at their best this season when they've run the ball; more specifically, they've been at their best when Marteze Waller has the ball in his hands. He's a big physical back with the agility, vision and speed to take it the distance anytime he touches the ball. The more the ball is in Waller's hands, the better the Bulldogs are likely to be. Unfortunately, after rushing 22 times for 145 yards and a score in the first quarter and a half against San Jose State, Waller left the game with a shoulder injury and is questionable to play on Saturday. His health could be a major tipping point in the outcome of this game.
2. There have been two themes this year on defense for Fresno State: Big plays and third downs. Nevada enters this game as the third-best team in the Mountain West in scoring during conference play, averaging 30.8 points a game. The Wolf Pack also convert 44.38% of their third downs on offense, which ranks fifth in conference, but are next-to-last in explosive plays of 20+ yards, with just 40 on the season.
The Bulldog defense is third-worst in the MWC, however, having given up 59 plays of 20+ yards, while also allowing up 44.24% of opponents third down conversions. Limiting the explosive plays and third down conversions could be what determines whether Fresno State ends up on top at the end of the night.
3. The quarterback position has been an ongoing saga, as it has featured three different quarterbacks at various times of the season. Thankfully, Brian Burrell gave the Red Wave hope that the position has been solidified with his best performance of the year against San Jose State. It was an unexpected surprise, buoyed by a powerful running game that featured two 100 yards rushers in Waller and Josh "Juice" Quezada, who chipped in 112 yards on 24 carries, most of which came after Waller left the game with the shoulder injury. If Fresno State is able to run the ball effectively, early in the game, Brian Burrell should have the opportunity to receive some optimal passing situations that could catch the Wolf Pack defense off guard. Expect him to look for Josh Harper and Chad Olsen, as the senior receiver and freshman tight end have combined for 10 touchdowns and over 13 yards per catch.
What To Watch - Nevada
1. Cody Fajardo. What more can be said? He has solidified himself as one of the most dynamic players in not only the Mountain West Conference, but in all of college football. The senior quarterback is only the second QB in NCAA history to throw for over 9,000 yards and rush for over 3,000 yards, the other being his predecessor, Colin Kaepernick. As he goes, so go the Wolf Pack, and with this being his last game at Mackay Stadium, he's unlikely to go quietly into the night.
2. Besides Fajardo, two other impact players for Nevada will be playing their last game at Mackay Stadium: defensive end Brock Hekking and linebacker Jonathan McNeal. Both are seniors and, though Nevada's defense has given up 28 points per game in conference, Hekking and McNeal are two seniors who have been counted upon to make plays for the Wolf Pack defense in the past. They will need to be successful against the Bulldogs. Hekking is currently seventh in the FBS in career sacks among active players with 21.5, while McNeal leads the Wolf Pack and is ninth in the Mountain West with 82 tackles on the year.
3. Turnovers matter. During their wins this season in conference, Nevada is ranked first in the MWC with a +1.83 turnover margin. In their losses, however, they've posted a -0.25 margin. All together, the overall +1 margin on the year still puts Nevada second in the conference. Fresno State prides themselves on winning the turnover battle, but this year have slumped to ninth with a -0.40 margin. If Nevada can continue their success in protecting the ball on offense and taking it away on defense, then the game is likely to tilt in their favor. Oddly enough, though, Nevada has been better on the road (+1.40) than they have been at home (+0.60).
Regardless of who wins, this is likely to be a high scoring affair with the intensity of a playoff game, so buckle up, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.