Who: Fresno State Bulldogs (1-0, 0-0 MWC) v. Minnesota Golden Gophers(1-0, 0-0 Big Ten)
Where: TCF Bank Stadium at University of Minnesota
When: Saturday, Sept. 8, 7:30pm ET
How to Watch: Game will be broadcast live on Fox Sports
Opening Line: Minnesota -2.5
Well, that was sure fun, wasn’t it? Fresno State started off the 2018 season by absolutely eviscerating Idaho by a score of 79-13. This was the most points scored at Bulldog Stadium since 1991, and their 7 turnovers are already more than half of what they had last season. Now the Dogs take their show on the road for the first time to take on the Golden Gophers of Minnesota. This also looks to be the Bulldogs’ first chance to notch their first OOC road win since 2009, when they topped Illinois. Minnesota is obviously a better team in Year 2 of the P.J. Fleck era than Idaho, but let’s take a quick dive into the keys to the game.
Opponent Preview: Minnesota
The Gophers started their season with a lot of question marks on both sides of the ball, and it looks like their first game against New Mexico State helped answer a couple of them. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Fleck handed the keys to true freshman walk-on Zach Annexstad, but he seems to have done pretty well for himself in his first game. He went a rather pedestrian 16 for 33, good for 48.5%. But those 16 completions netted 220 yards through the air, good for 6.75yds/attempt. Not great, but not terrible for a first game under center. This was against the No.122 team in the country according to S&P+, so take it with a big grain of salt. Through FPI, you’re comparing the No.97 defense of NMSU to the No.20 defense in Fresno State, so I’d definitely expect those numbers to drop this week.
They did thump New Mexico State 48-10, and a lot of that came from their running game. Rodney Smith and Mohamed Ibrahim combined for 254 yards on 33 carries, good enough for 7.7yds/carry. Last week, Fresno State gave up 3.2yds/carry, but that was against Idaho. I would expect Minnesota to again lean on their run game to give their young QB time to adjust, and Smith is definitely a back the Dogs will need to contain if they want to get out of TCF Bank with a win.
The biggest threat that Minnesota will bring to this game is Tyler Johnson. The 6’2” junior only caught 5 passes last Saturday, but that was at 20yds/rec, and 2TDs. He’s a monster on the outside, and will provide a challenge to the Fresno State secondary. Now, this is a secondary that had 5INTs last week, will be interesting to watch the matchup develop between Johnson and either of the Bulldog corners.
Fresno State Preview:
After tearing Idaho limb from limb Saturday night, now the Bulldogs will face their first real test of the season against a P5 team on the road. It’s been a long time since Fresno State could stand toe-to-toe with a Big Ten team, and this is a road game in a hostile environment. We’ll also get to see what this team is really made up, since last week’s offense and defense were extremely vanilla to not give anything away to tape.
To start off, we know that Fresno State has a lot of players with P5 experience that are used to these sorts of environments, including senior QB Marcus McMaryion. He went 19/26 in his debut, for a very solid 73%. And only a couple of his incompletions were actual misses, mostly dropped passes on routes in the flat. Again, this was against a bad FCS defense, but I’d expect less drops this week. Especially since Michiah Quick now has experience with McMaryion, and is more than used to big-time environments from Oklahoma. Also, look for McMaryion to notch his first passing TD of the year, since he didn’t have to do it last week. The Dogs got 7TDs on the ground, so there was no need to rely on Keesean Johnson and the receiving corps for multiple TDs. I expect that to change this week against a feisty Gopher defense. Also expect a lot more action for Jamire Jordan, who didn’t log any receptions last week, again, because it wasn’t necessary.
Where they did shine was the run game. We knew going in that the Bulldogs returned almost all of their rushing yards, even with Ronnie Rivers’ injury. But that did give sophomore Jordan Mims a big chance to lead, and lead he did. Sure, it was only 36yds. But it also came with 3TDs, and the Bulldog RBs did break off more than a couple long runs, which was definitely missing last year.
While we didn’t quite see the same monstrous defense that we got used to under Orlondo Steinauer, they did still pretty well against Idaho. They only logged 1 sack and 4 TFLs, but they did constantly force the Idaho QBs into bad throws because of the pressure. As evidenced by their 7 turnovers, including a strip sack in the 1st quarter. Minnesota does have a lot of experience on the O-Line, so it will be very interesting to see how Jasad Haynes, Kevin Atkins, Mykal Walker, and Ekema Ndoh can get to the QB.
As usual, there’s no questions at all in the back 7 for Fresno State. They completely took over the game last week, and look to do the same again. Jeff Allison, George Helmuth, and James Bailey combined for 10 tackles and an INT, but they did a fantastic job of keeping the Idaho offense from moving anywhere. And that secondary was pretty much elite in Game 1. The starters combined for 15 tackles and those 4INTs. The 5th was a tipped pass that Levell Tatum caught off the edge. Plus, there’s the little matter of their blocked kicks and TDs, three in total from Tank Kelly and Jaron Bryant.
Will say that the special teams concerns about Fresno State evaporated pretty quickly. Yes, Asa Fuller missed a 50+yd FG wide left, and one PAT, but he also made 11 kicks. Kind of hard to argue with that, although I’m sure he needed a ton of ice on that knee Sunday. Does mean that if it comes down to kicking, I think the Dogs will be okay inside of 50yds.
Look for this to be a much closer game for both teams after Week 1 tune-ups. Vegas has set the line at 2.5 for the Gophers, although that includes 3 points for home field. So they’re calling it a toss-up, and the stats look at it similar ways. FPI has the Bulldogs as very slight underdogs, and S&P+ has them as slight favorites. Don’t think anyone expects a blowout in either direction, which sounds about right. I do think the Dogs have the advantage here on both sides of the ball, and will pull out the win. Minnesota will put up a heck of a fight, but Tedford and Co are too much for the Gophers. Bulldogs 31-21.