WEEK 6: Fresno State Bulldogs (1-4, 0-1 Mountain West) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (2-3, 0-1 MWC)
WHEN: Saturday, October 8 — 4:00 PM PT
WHERE: Mackay Stadium; Reno, NV (30,000)
RADIO: The broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM.
SERIES RECORD: Fresno State holds a 27-19-1 advantage in this series. In the last meeting on November 5, 2015, however, Nevada came into Bulldog Stadium and won, 30-16.
Do these desperate times call for desperate measures?
It raised a few eyebrows that the Fresno State Bulldogs opened as double-digit underdogs to a UNLV team that had just lost to Idaho at home, but there they were on Saturday night, looking more or less like the same moribund squad they’ve been for the better part of two-plus seasons. There was the inconsistent quarterback play, the MIA running game, the MIA pass rush, the comically bad run defense. Almost no one expected that the Rebels would run the ‘Dogs off the field, but that’s exactly what happened.
Now, after yet another lopsided defeat, the Bulldogs face the same situation once more. Like UNLV, the Nevada Wolf Pack are reeling after a stunning loss of their own, courtesy of Hawaii. Like UNLV, the Wolf Pack opened as double-digit favorites, anyway, a clear lack of faith from betting types who’ve signaled how they expect this game to go. Fresno State, deservedly, gets no respect.
So what do the Bulldogs have to do, then, to earn it and save their 2016 campaign from sliding further into irrelevancy?
Three keys to a Fresno State win
Get off to a fast start. Aside from Air Force’s Nate Romine, no quarterback in the MWC has been worse in the first quarter than Chason Virgil. He’s tied for first in pass attempts (41), but he’s last among the conference’s starters in completion percentage (41.5%), passes of 15-plus yards (3), and touchdowns (zero). And while Nevada’s pass defense has been solid overall, opponents have been able to move the ball against this unit early (69.1% completion rate, nine plays of 15+ yards on 33 attempts).
Small sample size caveats apply, but Virgil might not face a softer pass rush for the rest of the season, either. The Wolf Pack have just three sacks in five games, so he should have more time to complete passes than usual... if the offensive line can get right.
Win in short-yardage situations. This will be easier said than done, given both the defensive line’s continual wilting late in games and Nevada’s astounding successes so far in that regard. Bill Connelly’s Power Success Rate is defined as “the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown”, and the Wolf Pack have converted at a 90% clip thus far, sixth in the FBS.
Much of that is a credit to James Butler, who will play a significant role one way or another. To date, he has 12 first down carries on 14 third-and-short attempts, so winning those battles and stalling drives will be critical to an upset bid.
Limit big passing plays. Tyler Stewart has been okay, but no one would confuse him for a dynamic playmaker at this point and many numbers bear it out: His yards per attempt is only a shade better than Virgil’s (6.5 to 6.3), and the Wolf Pack’s success rate on passing downs — second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more, according to Bill Connelly — ranks 124th in the nation (22.5%).
Granted, some (or most) of that failure is probably rectified by Butler’s successes, as mentioned above, but it’s also worth noting that just one of Stewart’s receivers has a yards-per-catch average above... eleven (Andrew Celis, 18.0). They’ve been efficient, but not explosive, and ensuring they stay that way should keep the Bulldogs competitive.