Who: Fresno State (5-1, 2-0 MWC) @ New Mexico (3-3, 1-1 MWC)
Where: Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico (Capacity, 39,224)
When: Saturday, October 20, 5:30PM MT, 4:30PM PT
How to Watch: Game will be broadcast on ESPNU
After thoroughly smothering Wyoming last Saturday, Fresno State goes back on the road high above sea level to visit one of the more inconsistent and interesting teams in the conference, the New Mexico Lobos. The last time these two teams met, Fresno State completely shut down the Lobos’ option attack 38-0 in Fresno en route to a 10 win season and division title. Now they must travel to 5,100 feet and New Mexico’s home if they want to stay on track for another double-digit win season. This will be the Bulldogs’ first trip to Albuquerque since 2014 due to division travel schedules. In that game, Fresno State took the win 35-24. Since then, Fresno State has changed coaches and identity, while New Mexico still holds onto their option offense identity.
What makes this New Mexico team a bit different from the teams in the past is that this Lobo team has been throwing the ball more than in past years. After cycling through QBs over the last few years, it looks like Bob Davie has found his signal-caller in Sheriron Jones. The junior QB seized the starting job, and now leads an offense that’s thrown for more yards than it has run for. Hands up anyone that saw that coming from New Mexico at the start of the year. He’s thrown for 958yds so far, while also running for 183. He’s definitely a dynamic playmaker, and something that will require attention from Fresno State’s seasoned secondary. He might actually be the best QB that Fresno State has seen so far this season, but the back end of Fresno State’s defense is probably looking at the 6INTs that Jones has thrown so far. They’ve already grabbed 17 turnovers this season, and will look to keep their pace of almost 3 turnovers per game going.
What we’ve come to expect from New Mexico though is a strong running game, and that does still remain even though they’re throwing more than usual. Senior Tyrone Owens remains a dynamic running threat, and has scored 6TDs on the ground so far this season. 12 different running backs have registered multiple carries this year, so expect the Lobos to try to establish their running game against a stout Bulldog defense.
New Mexico has been an odd team to try to look at this year, mostly through highly inconsistent play. They blew out Incarnate Word, New Mexico State, and UNLV, but got blown out by Wisconsin. They lost a shootout to Liberty 52-43, and then had absolutely no offense against Colorado State, losing 20-18 on a last-second FG. They’ve been oscillating between being bad, and being really potent on offense. It’ll be interesting to see which New Mexico team shows up against Fresno State. Not sure if they’ll be able to find enough opportunities against this defense to get into a shootout, but they could find some success if the passing game gets going and pulls the defense back.
Fresno State Preview:
We’re still struggling in the running game, but this defense is just absolutely incredible. They’re up to 6th now in defensive metrics, and up to 2nd in scoring defense, surrendering 13 points per game. And they’ve now gone two complete games without allowing a TD. They did rebound a little bit from the abysmal 30yd rushing performance against Nevada, but it’s still not great. They did get to 104, but everyone wants to see more production from the running game, and this week might be the week to do it. New Mexico currently ranks 108th in defensive metrics, and 115th against the run. Even with some changes on the O-Line, the Bulldog running backs should be able to find some open lanes on Saturday. They’re still only averaging 3.7yds/rush on the season, but Tedford and Co definitely want to boost those numbers up. It opens up the passing game, and helps keep the opposing defense on the field longer if you can run the ball.
Where there’s been no question at all is in the passing game. Far and away the most experienced unit on the team, Marcus McMaryion has proven to be an incredibly efficient and effective QB both through the air and on the ground. Keesean Johnson has kept his consecutive game receptions streak going to 42 games now, and he should reach 50 if all things go to plan. The best revelation so far though has been Jared Rice. The junior tight end has led the Bulldogs in receiving the last two weeks, and got the first touchdown on the board last Saturday against Wyoming. He adds a new dimension to the offense, and has been lethal running seam routes behind opposing linebackers. Not to mention that Cam Sutton, Kyle Riddering, and David Tangipa have become situational weapons as well, and there’s almost a dozen pass-catchers that Marcus can turn to at any point. While they’re not quite to the home run offense of the Derek Carr days, this is definitely the best passing offense we’ve seen since 2013. And that team had a much worse defense than this team, going from 85th in S&P to 6th this season.
The only worry is on the defensive injury front. Jasad Haynes missed the game last week with a foot injury, and Tank Kelly had to be helped off the field after a tackle in the 4th quarter against Wyoming. The report from Jeff Tedford is that both should play this week, but it may be in the team’s best interest to hold both out for this game. With Haynes recovering from a foot injury, getting rolled up on from a cut block is the last thing he needs. And with Keiti Iakopo and Ricky McCoy stepping up last week to cover his spot, the defensive line should be fine if the coaches decide to rest him. It looks like Tank Kelly only tweaked a nerve in his neck, and was just a bit sore going into this week. While New Mexico has been throwing the ball much better, I think the secondary is more than capable of getting through this game without risking an injury to a key defender. Wylan Free has been great as a backup, and we know we’re locked in with Juju Hughes, Jaron Bryant, and Mike Bell roving the field.
Facing a triple option team like this is a challenge for pretty much every time that doesn’t see it weekly, and this game is no different. Cut blocks, running game, and mobile QBs are the order of the day here, not to mention New Mexico’s improved passing game. In most years, I’d be really worried about this game, but not with this defense. As long as defenders stay home, and don’t get overzealous with their blitzes, they should have no trouble containing New Mexico for the second year in a row. They pitched a shutout last year against the Lobos, and they should be close to doing that again this year. This team also maintains a better offense than last year’s unit that scored 38 against New Mexico, but they may spend a bit more time trying to get the run game going against a porous defense. The spread right now sits at Fresno State being 14 point favorites. FPI gives the Dogs an 83% chance to win, and S&P sits at 81%, with a 15.5 point projected margin. I think the Dogs will beat the spread, and go to a comfortable win on the road. I see this ending around 31-3 at the end.