After a crazy off-season with a coaching change, defensive switch-a-roo, a pandemic shutting down Spring ball, and then a cancellation/delay of the MWC football season, we’re finally back. The 2020 Fresno State football season kicks off this weekend, and it’s against Hawaii in Bulldog Stadium. We get to start the year off with the Golden Screwdriver game. Let’s take a quick look at what’s coming up Saturday night.
Who: Hawaii (0-0) @ Fresno State (0-0)
When: Saturday, October 24, 4:30PT
Where: Bulldog Stadium, Fresno, CA, Current Capacity: 0
How to Watch: For local fans, the game will be carried on KSEE24, Hawaii fans will have Spectrum Sports. All others will need to download the Team1Sports app to their phones or Smart TV to view the game.
What’s New For Fresno State:
After a highly disappointing 2019 campaign that saw the Bulldogs lose 7 of 8 games by less than 10 points, and 5 by less than 1 possession, Jeff Tedford abruptly stepped down in December due to health concerns. This threw the whole program into chaos, as a coaching search now how to be undertaken. Kalen Deboer, former offensive coordinator under Tedford, was enticed back to Fresno from Indiana after re-invigorating the Hoosiers offense for a season. He brought with him William Inge from IU and a brand new 4-2-5 defensive set-up for the team. All of this would be enough to tamp down expectations for Fresno State in 2020, then the world stopped in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring ball was cancelled, summer workouts were cancelled, and then the Fall season was initially cancelled. Things are back on some sort of schedule though, and after an accelerated Fall camp, Fresno State is back and ready to play, with a host of new faces and schemes against the Warriors of Hawaii.
On the offensive side, Jorge Reyna graduated after an up-and-down 2019, and he has been replaced by highly-touted Washington transfer Jake Haener. After a neck-and-neck Fall camp against 2019 backup Ben Woolridge, Haener was announced as QB 1 on Monday, and will look to guide a still young, but experienced Fresno State offense. After a rash of injuries in 2019 forced a youth movement, there is experience all over that side of the ball, spearheaded by Senior running back Ronnie Rivers. The Bulldogs’ lead back is hoping for a stellar 2020 campaign building off of a 2019 All-MWC second team selection, and cement his place in Bulldog lore alongside his father. Joining him is a now-healthy Jordan Mims, back after missing all of 2019 with injuries, and Wyoming transfer Javon Bigelow, who looks to fill the role left by Josh Hokit’s graduation.
The wide receiver room may be the deepest Fresno State has seen in a long time, due to all of those injuries forcing a youth movement in 2019. Local star Jalen Cropper returns after an explosive freshman season, and leads returners Chris Coleman (back on offense after a season at cornerback), 2019 leading receiver Zane Pope, Keric Wheatfall now healthy, another highly touted local recruit in Josh Kelly, and Jamal Glaspie. This doesn’t even cover Emoryie Edwards, freshman Mac Delana, Erik Brooks, or Patrick Elima-Jeune who holds down kick returner duties as well. If Haener is any sort of competent QB, it looks like this could be a dynamic passing attack like we saw in DeBoer’s first two years in Fresno.
The O-line was a huge question coming into 2020, after the line was rocked by injuries in 2019. Netane Muti has now gone to the NFL, Jace Fuamatu and Tim Anderson are both gone, and everyone else was stuck rotating around to get 5 bodies on the line. Syrus Tuitele returns for his third season starting at RG, along with Matt Smith, Dontae Bull, and Quireo Woodley who all started at least 8 games last year. The final spot has been the toss-up, and it appears that redshirt freshman Dante Adkins will be taking that spot for now, with former 4* recruit Tyrone Sampson being next man up. All Bulldog fans will be hoping for more consistent O-Line play and protection for both the backs and the QB this season.
The defense will look completely different from 2019, not only with new faces, but a new scheme. William Inge brought in a 4-2-5 defense for the Dogs, which adds to the challenges of faces all over the defense. Mykal Walker graduated to the NFL, Ricky McCoy, Keiti Iakopo, and Jasad Haynes all graduated. The biggest shock was MW Pre-season Defensive Player of the Year Justin Rice transferring in August to Arkansas State after it looked like the Mountain West wouldn’t be playing this year. Look for Senior Kevin Atkins to anchor the defensive line alongside Alex Dumais, Kwami Jones, and David Perales in hopefully a bounceback year for the Bulldog defense after a hot-and-cold 2019. Aaron Mosby returns at linebacker, as does Levelle Bailey moving to the new Husky position. Look for Illinois transfer Jacob Hollins to start alongside Mosby at LB, with new recruit Justin Houston backing up Bailey at Husky.
The secondary was decimated by injury in 2019, forcing Chris Coleman to switch over from wide receiver to corner. He’s back where he should be on offense this year, with Wylan Free back at his natural position as well at CB. Starting across from him appears to be walk-on Bralyn Lux in a big surprise, with breakout star Evan Williams returning at Safety alongside 5th year senior and former running back Deonte Perry.
Fresno State isn’t the only team breaking in a new head coach and staff in a pandemic whirlwind, a large chunk of the West Division is. Hawaii brings in veteran head coach Todd Graham, last at Arizona State, to take over for Nick Rolovich. Graham is known for throwing the ball a whole lot, which should fit well with Hawaii’s run-and-gun offense from the last few years. Chevan Cordeiro is finally the full-time starter after Cole McDonald declared for the NFL after 2019. Look for them to try to spread the ball around as much as possible to keep the defense stretched thin.
Previewing the Game:
In the 2010s, the Golden Screwdriver Game has been dominated by the Bulldogs. Hawaii has won this matchup a grand total of once, in Fresno State’s abysmal 2016 season, and that was only by a point. Even in down seasons like 2014, 2015, and 2019, Fresno State has still found ways to defeat the Warriors, both at home and on the islands. This may be the toughest game though in a long time to predict and work out. Both teams are breaking in new coaches, a host of new players, and amongst abbreviated off-seasons and almost no Spring/Summer training. This game is going to be either a track meet, or an ugly slog as both teams struggle to gain traction in their first game back in almost a year. Vegas is giving the Bulldogs 4 points as the favorite, with FPI giving the Dogs a 70.4% chance of starting the year with a victory. Bill Connelly’s SP+ gives the Dogs a 53% chance of winning, with a 2 point margin projected. I’m going to lean a bit more towards Vegas’ margin, but near enough to Connelly’s score. I think both offenses are ahead of both defenses, and Fresno State maintains their winning ways over Hawaii, and keeps the Golden Screwdriver for another year.