WEEK 2: Fresno State Bulldogs (1-1) vs. Toledo Rockets (2-0)
WHEN: Saturday, September 17 — 12:00 PM PT
WHERE: Glass Bowl; Toledo, OH (26,244)
TV: ESPN3. In the Central Valley, the game can also be found on Fresno’s NBC affiliate, KSEE-24.
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: This will be the third meeting between the Bulldogs and Rockets; Fresno State has won both of the prior games. In their most recent clash, on September 20, 2008, the Bulldogs outlasted Toledo in double overtime, 55-54.
Are the Fresno State Bulldogs for real?
It’s been difficult to tell through the first two weeks of the season. The team that played Nebraska close for three quarters didn’t show up in last week’s home win against Sacramento State, which is both good and bad. The defense, for example, had its best sixty minutes in, well, a long time, and hasn’t given up the big plays that often plagued them in 2015.
The offense, on the other hand, has struggled to find balance and consistency: Their 3.35 rushing yards per carry is 107th in the nation through two games, and Chason Virgil’s 106.87 quarterback rating ranks 100th among qualifying FBS signal-callers. It’s a work in progress, but there’s pressure on Tim DeRuyter and company to get results.
Toledo, meanwhile, has looked every bit the part of the MAC powerhouse the prognosticators expected. The Rockets blew out a solid Arkansas State team on the road in their season opener, then handled FCS Maine easily at home last week. UT has a team that, if things break their way, is good enough to earn the Group of Five’s bid for a New Year’s Day bowl.
The fact remains that while we don’t know a whole lot about Fresno State’s base level of production, we will after Saturday afternoon.
Three keys to a Fresno State win
Find receivers down the field. All things considered, Fresno State’s trio of Aaron Peck, Keesean Johnson and Jamire Jordan have had a successful two weeks. They’ve turned a combined 80.1% target rate into a 60.9% catch rate and a success rate right around 50%, but the explosiveness has been somewhat lacking: They have just one catch of 30-plus yards between them, and a pedestrian average of 11.5 yards per catch.
This is not for lack of trying, though. Chason Virgil took a handful of shots down the field against Sacramento State, and his receivers were open, but the sophomore simply didn’t have touch on the deep ball. Hitting on one or two of those opportunities could turn the tide in Fresno State’s favor.
Beat Storm Norton. The Rockets are one of just six FBS teams to have allowed zero sacks in the season’s first two weeks and, additionally, they’ve allowed just six tackles for loss. Their mammoth senior left tackle, Storm Norton, is a significant reason for that success.
At 6-foot-8 and 306 pounds, the all-MAC lineman will pose a challenge for James Bailey, who had eight tackles against Sacramento State and will likely get the majority of snaps against Norton. Making at least a couple plays in Toledo’s backfield can create favorable situations on defense, since the Bulldogs have shown handling obvious passing situations is a strength.
Find a way to finish drives. One of the biggest disparities between Fresno State and Toledo in this young season is reflected in the gulf of how they seize potential scoring opportunities. The Bulldogs offense has picked up just 2.93 points per trip inside the opponents' 40-yard line, while the Rockets sit at 5.43. Some of those missed opportunities linger in memory — Kody Kroening's missed chip shot vs. Nebraska, for instance — but most of it comes down to conservatism (Blake Cusick punted from Sacramento State's 36, 38 and, twice, 41) and growing pains:
Chason Virgil's QB rating in the red zone: 203.83 | Chason Virgil's QB rating from the opponents' 39- to 21-yard line: 77.72
Fresno State’s rushing offense from the opponents’ 39- to 21-yard line: 6.0 yards per carry | Fresno State’s rushing offense everywhere else on the field: 2.67 yards per carry
Whatever the case, Fresno State must be more productive once they get across midfield. Much of this, fairly or unfairly, will fall on the sophomore Virgil, but the offensive line also needs to push back against a talented Toledo defensive front: Ends John Stepec and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi are undersized but already have three TFL apiece, while Earl Moore (a Miami transfer) and Treyvon Hester (who has 2.5 TFL himself) have size enough in the middle to disrupt both the run and the pass.