WEEK 14: Fresno State Bulldogs (5-6, 4-3 Mountain West) vs. Hawaii Warriors (4-8, 3-4)
WHEN: Saturday, November 29 -- 4:00 PM, PST
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)
TV: The game will be broadcast as part of the online Mountain West Network. You can find the live stream here.
RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively. The Warriors broadcast can be found in and around Honolulu on the local ESPN affiliates, 1420 and 1500 AM.
SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs lead the series 24-21-1. In the last meeting on September 28, 2013, Fresno State withstood a late Hawaii rally for a 42-37 victory in Honolulu.
WEB SITES: GoBulldogs.com, Fresno State's official athletics site | HawaiiAthletics.com, Hawaii's official athletics site
A month ago, suggesting that the Fresno State Bulldogs would enter the season finale with a chance to wrap up its second consecutive division title would have been a ludicrous idea. Suggesting that the Hawaii Warriors would still be mathematically alive might have gotten you committed. That both will enter Bulldog Stadium on Saturday afternoon with real stakes is a testament to just how strange the wild West has been in 2014.
In particular, the 'Dogs have looked more like their championship-caliber selves in the past two weeks, rallying from early deficits to defeat both San Jose State and Nevada, seizing control of their own destiny in the process. Hawaii, meanwhile, has taken the opposite tack, pitching the strangest shutout of the year against the Spartans before snatching a controversial last-second victory from UNLV.
Though the unlikelihood of the Warriors winning the division tickles the imagination, let's be real for a moment: The odds are exceedingly long and they'll need to upend the Bulldogs to do it. Here's why Fresno will slam the door on that dream.
Three Reasons Why Fresno State Will Win
1. Here's a simple question for you: How much faith do you have in Ikaika Woolsey? Hawaii's sophomore quarterback has a legitimate claim to being the worst signal-caller on the FBS level: Among the top 100 QBs in pass attempts (the minimum being Virginia's Greyson Lambert with 229), Woolsey's quarterback rating, 103.83, is above only Wake Forest's John Wolford. 99th out of 100 and, even then, just barely.
Furthermore, Woolsey's home/road splits probably aren't suitable for children: In five games away from Aloha Stadium, he owns a 4-6 TD-INT ratio, a 44.1% completion rate and a QB rating of 85.46. His mobility will make him difficult to take down, but even so the Warriors have allowed just under three sacks per game. He's shown flashes of playmaking potential all year, but he's been a far cry from consistent.
Fresno State retooled its secondary in the last month, with Charles Washington moving from safety to corner across from true freshman Malcolm Washington and Dalen Jones starting at safety with Derron Smith, and this quartet has slowed Joe Gray and Cody Fajardo. They should be able to keep the clamps on the Warriors' woeful air attack.
2. The broader problem with the Hawaii offense is that few teams have been more careless with the football; their 25 giveaways in 12 games is the most in the Mountain West. If Fresno's last two games are any indication, though, the Bulldogs will be in a position to make the Warriors pay for such mistakes. The 'Dogs forced seven turnovers against SJSU and Nevada, and while there's some fumble luck at play -- only two teams have lost a higher percentage of fumbles than Hawaii's 76.47% (13 of 17) -- it's impossible to ignore that the offense has seized those opportunities. Fresno State scored 20 points off Spartans turnovers and 14 more against the Wolf Pack. The volatility of the Hawaii offense would seem to make it more mistake-prone, so winning the turnover battle is the best way to bury the Warriors early.
3. On Senior Day, in the sweet, sweet all-black uniforms, Fresno's senior leaders will be motivated and should all have favorable matchups on the individual scale. Josh Harper's 2014 numbers have been suppressed somewhat by erratic quarterback play, but he's been healthy and dynamic and the production has been but a slight tick under what he managed in 2013. Josh Quezada has played the role of the hammer in the last few weeks while Marteze Waller has battled injuries. Tyeler Davison should get his licks against Woolsey and Joey Iosefa, as well, considering the leaky Warriors offensive line has allowed an astounding 80 tackles for loss.
None of this even considers Smith or the seniors at linebacker, Donavon Lewis and Karl Mickelsen, all of whom have raised their game in the last month. Motivation is a hard thing to quantify, of course, but there are few excuses for Fresno to come out flat.
Three Reasons the Bulldogs Might Falter
1. For as unusual as many Hawaii box scores have looked in 2014, consider that letting the Warriors hang around for too long is something the Bulldogs would do at their own peril. Hawaii's point differential in the first half is -73, but +3 after halftime. Fresno's offensive attack has been slow to come around at times and, perhaps coincidentally, three of Hawaii's four wins have come when they've held opponents under 30% on third down. Raise the bar to 35%, and you can include their close losses to Washington, Oregon State and Colorado early in the season.
In the same vein, the recent win streak hasn't done much to improve the Bulldogs' efficiency on third and fourth down, where Fresno is tenth and fifth, respectively, within the Mountain West. The longer it takes the home team to move the chains with consistency, the more confidence the visitors are likely to build.
2. Hawaii's do-it-all Aussie Scott Harding may get a lot of headlines for his unusual skill set, but Hawaii's special teams as a whole might be a quiet advantage. The Warriors' opponents have converted just 7 of 15 field goal attempts, second-best in the FBS behind Arkansas, and while Bulldogs kicker Kody Kroening has been more steady in the last month, his first field goal attempt last week recalled his early struggles. They've also blocked four kicks for good measure.
If that weren't enough, Hawaii is second in the FBS in opponents' punt return average, a credit to Harding's rugby-style approach to kicking, and while their kickoff coverage has been abysmal (27.46 yards per return, third-worst), Dillon Root and Da'Mari Scott have been mostly pedestrian. If the game devolves into a battle for field position, don't be surprised if it tilts in Hawaii's favor and Fresno State is forced to march a long way for a score.
3. Kennedy Tulimasealii and Beau Yap may not be household names for the average college football fan, but the Warriors' duo of defensive ends could very well give Fresno's offensive line a fight all afternoon. They've combined for 17 tackles for loss, and it's likely that any early success they have against Cody Wichmann and company will be what keeps Hawaii in the game: Fresno State averages 5.23 yards on its first down carries, while Hawaii gives up 3.88 on those same attempts. Forcing the 'Dogs into second-and-long more often than not might lead them to rely on Brian Burrell more than they would like, especially if Waller is unable to go after sustaining a concussion last weekend.