WEEK 2: Sacramento State Hornets (0-1) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (0-1)
WHEN: Saturday, September 10 — 7:00 PM PT
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)
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 Hornets; Fresno State has won both of the prior games. In their most recent clash, on September 1, 2007, the Bulldogs earned a 24-3 victory.
In last week’s season opener against Nebraska, the Fresno State Bulldogs showed signs of fight that were rare sights in 2015. Redshirt freshman quarterback Chason Virgil didn’t shy away from the big stage, for instance, and the pass defense, with a couple of exceptions, looked very stout.
There were also signs that this team has a bit of a learning curve left to discover, as well: Ill-time drops by Aaron Peck and KeeSean Johnson kept the ‘Dogs from tying the game at halftime and led to an easy Nebraska INT, respectively. The ‘Dogs were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after a successful two-point conversation when the game was out of reach. And the Cornhuskers’ running game held the advantage against Fresno State’s front seven all night.
All things considered, though, the foundation is there to put all the pieces together in a dominant fashion this Saturday. Sacramento State, after all, just suffered a really tough loss of their own against Western Oregon, a Division II team. A complete performance in each facet of the game could put the fanbase’s mind at ease, before the non-conference schedule ramps up the difficulty level in the weeks to come.
What to watch - Fresno State
Strength vs. strength: How will the ‘Dogs respond to SSU’s passing game? Hornets sophomore quarterback Nate Ketteringham had himself quite a game last Saturday, establishing career highs in pass attempts (58), completions (34) and passing yards (370). Six different Sacramento State receivers had at least four receptions, too, which poses an interesting test for a defensive backfield that wasn’t challenged all that often in the opener.
Fresno State can put this game away early if they carry over the ballhawking skills flashed in fall camp. More than a few passes were tightly contested against Nebraska, and the only glaring breakdown was the long touchdown pass to Alonzo Moore, a vast overall improvement from a year ago. Ketteringham threw two interceptions against WOU last week, and the Bulldogs should be able to make him pay for similar mistakes.
Pressure, pressure, pressure. Related to the first point, Fresno State had a difficult time dealing with Tommy Armstrong’s mobility last weekend but, thankfully, Ketteringham seems to possess a more standard quarterback skill set (his career high in rushing is just 51 yards). That makes it imperative for the pass rushers to show they can turn quarterback hurries into sacks.
Though the Hornets have three starters on the offensive line who started every game in 2015, the two new athletes on the line are both underclassmen (Nick Bianco, LG, Fr.; Ivan Espiritu, RG, Soph.) and the unit allowed four sacks to Western Oregon last Saturday. Keep an eye on whether outside linebackers James Bailey and Brandon Hughes can get into the backfield and finish plays before they develop.
A mixed bag on special teams? The punt block that Fresno State managed last week is the kind of game-changing play that the Bulldogs might need again later in the season; that they showed such an ability is a positive. As for everything else, well...
Redshirt freshman punter Blake Cusick didn’t have a particularly good game against Nebraska, averaging just 35 yards per punt. Kody Kroening missed a 32-yard field goal that Nebraska turned into its first lead. The return game, spearheaded by Johnson and Dejonte O’Neal, was just okay. Fresno State should be fine even if they can’t tilt field position in their favor or make chip shots against SSU, but the sooner they show they can do so with some consistency, the better.