WEEK 10: Fresno State Bulldogs (3-5, 2-2 Mountain West) vs. Wyoming Cowboys (3-5, 1-3)
WHEN: Saturday, November 1 -- 7:45 PM, PST
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)
RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively. The Cowboys broadcast can be found on the flagship of the Cowboys Sports Network in Cheyenne on 1240 AM.
SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs lead the series 5-4. In the last meeting on November 9, 2013, Fresno State routed the Cowboys 48-10 in Laramie.
WEB SITES: GoBulldogs.com, Fresno State's official athletics site | GoWyo.com, Wyoming's official athletics site
The season hasn't gone according to plan for both the Wyoming Cowboys and the Fresno State Bulldogs. The cavalcade of fun "Bohl-ing" puns has slowed to a trickle as the Pokes have struggled through an arduous midseason road swing. A rout in East Lansing begot an upset on the Big Island, which has snowballed recently into another defeat in the Border War against Colorado State. With division games with Utah State and Boise State on the horizon, things might get ugly for the boys in brown and yellow.
Meanwhile, Fresno State fans must have felt like the season couldn't get much worse after dropping a winnable game against UNLV and relinquishing the Milk Can to the rival Broncos, but the coaching staff gave them new hope while the team took time off last weekend. After shuffling through two quarterbacks and watching the offense sputter for two months, head coach Tim DeRuyter decided enough was enough and has handed the reins to the future. With the West division still in reach and time to prepare, it is easy to understand why now would be the time to make the switch. Here's why the 'Dogs will benefit immediately.
Three Reasons Why Fresno State Will Win
1. Let's not beat around the bush: Could redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee be any worse than Brian Burrell? In terms of quarterback rating (imperfect, but bear with me), Burrell was having the worst season of any Bulldogs QB since Tommy Brandstater in 2006. That season, you'll recall, was lost almost from the get-go after three close losses in the first five weeks, but this move matters because the stakes are still relatively high in 2014. It may not be likely that the 'Dogs defense their conference title, but they're still in the hunt for the moment. Greenlee gives them the best chance to win, and DeRuyter acknowledges this.
It helps that Greenlee's first opponent has a defense that, despite the presence of star defensive end Eddie Yarbrough and middle linebacker Jordan Stanton, is less than 100% on the injury front. Robert Kuwada of the Fresno Bee notes that the Pokes are down five defensive starters and rank in the bottom half of the conference in scoring defense and pass defense. Don't be surprised if the pass-first attack is more effective early than it's looked all season.
2. Wyoming came into the season with a stable of steady, if not spectacular, running backs, but the Cowboys' running game may have become a liability that Fresno can exploit. After losing D.J. May for the year a week ago, Shaun Wick suffered a broken hand last Saturday against Colorado State. This means the starting job falls to true freshman Brian Hill, who had a fine game against the Rams but will certainly be a point of emphasis for the Bulldogs defense.
This is not to say that the 'Dogs will completely shut Hill down, for they've been vulnerable against stars like Ameer Abdullah and Jay Ajayi this year. However, it is worth noting that the defense has shown the ability to adjust at halftime, an underrated reason for their victories against New Mexico and San Diego State. Opponents' average yards per carry drops from 4.86 to 4.02 from the first half to the second, while Wyoming's YPC on offense falls from 4.1 to 3.5.
3. Donavon Lewis and Ejiro Ederaine must be licking their chops because the Cowboys haven't done a particularly good job of protecting quarterback Colby Kirkegaard this season. Opponents have racked up 31 sacks in eight games, good for 121st in the FBS ranks, and while Fresno's takedowns haven't always been big plays, their 17 sacks are good for fourth in the Mountain West.
There will be a lot of pressure on true freshman Ryan Cummings, who has been pressed into duty at left tackle in the last three games. He will likely see more players attacking his edge than in any of the pass rushes he's seen so far. Aside from Lewis and Ederaine, however, it is a near certainty that the athletes at cornerback will also get their shots at Kirkegaard: Charles Washington's 4.5 tackles for loss is tops among Mountain West DBs and Curtis Riley has chipped in with 3.5 of his own.
Three Reasons the Bulldogs Might Falter
1. If Zack Greenlee is likely to be a catalyst for a Fresno State victory, it must also be acknowledged that the new quarterback may also be the team's biggest hindrance. Facing Wyoming, a disciplined team fighting for its bowl hopes, is much different than completing one long, pretty garbage-time pass against a miserable FCS team (though, really, it was very pretty). Watching a quarterback overthrow receivers again and again gets tiresome quickly, but when the Cowboys inevitably get pressure in Greenlee's face, how will he respond? Is it out of the question that he will start sailing passes, too?
The upside is that we're certain to have an answer to this early in the game. If he struggles in the face of a pass rush, it will become a matter of keeping things in perspective. The 'Dogs surely want another win this Saturday, but this is also a play for 2015, and he'll be learning on the fly no matter the results.
2. Wyoming's receivers are having sort of a weird year. Dominic Rufran leads the team with 33 catches, and he has a catch in an FBS-best 45 straight games, but he has zero touchdowns in 2014. Jalen Claiborne and Tanner Gentry have combined for another 53 catches and five scores. That trio has an argument as one of the best in the Mountain West, but what stands out and what should concern the Bulldogs is that each of Wyoming's three primary wideouts is capable of a big play.
Rufran, Claiborne and Gentry have combined for 16 plays of 20-plus yards, half the team's overall total, and despite the erratic performances put together by Colby Kirkegaard they all average over 13.5 yards per catch. Against a Fresno State defense that has allowed 9.0 yards per attempt and made Blake Decker and Grant Hedrick look like world-beaters, this could be a recipe for disaster.
3. Neither team has been particularly penalty-prone this season, but the game could hinge on whomever catches a break from the guys in black and white stripes. San Diego State fans will recall their grievance with the amount of blown calls in the last game at Bulldog Stadium, but penalties contributed to the 17-point deficit the 'Dogs faced in Vegas and could be considered a critical point in their last-ditch drive against Boise State. Wyoming, meanwhile, leads the conference in fewest penalties but has been charged with seven in each of their last two games. All it might take is a free ten yards to sustain or kill a drive come Saturday night.