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RoWINg to Fresno State - Opponent Preview

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Don’t expect a repeat of the season opener for either team

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to put New Mexico State in the rearview mirror and turn our attention to the next opponent that awaits the Golden Gophers: Fresno State.

Were they any good last year?

Record: 10-4 (7-1, 1st MWC West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 23rd

The Bulldogs rebounded from a 1-11 season in 2016 to come roaring back with a 10-4 record, claiming the top spot in their division and earning a spot in the Mountain West title game against Boise State. It was head coach Jeff Tedford’s first season at the helm. Two of their four losses came on the road against Alabama and Washington.

What about this year?

We’re a few weeks from separating the contenders from the pretenders, but the Bulldogs certainly acquitted themselves well in their season opener. Idaho, a former FBS program that volunteered for a demotion to FCS, were outmatched from the beginning. Fresno State obliterated the Vandals, heading to the locker room at halftime with a 51-6 lead after a pick six and not one but two blocked field goals returned for touchdowns. The final score was 79-13, with the Bulldogs’ second-string taking care of most of the second half.

Just as I did with the Gophers’ opener against New Mexico State, take these results with a grain of salt. I’m not sure any real conclusions can be drawn, other than that Fresno State took care of business against a vastly inferior opponent.

Can they score on offense?

Absolutely. This offense will put points on the board.

Whereas New Mexico State lost their leading passer, leading rusher, and leading receiver from a season ago, Fresno State returns all three — senior quarterback Marcus McMaryion, sophomore running back Jordan Mims, and senior wide receiver KeeSean Johnson.

McMaryion transferred in from Oregon State and was the starting quarterback last season, completing 218 of 351 pass attempts for 2,726 yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He is the lightning rod for a dynamic offense that likes to spread defenses out and attack them with a variety of different formations. McMaryion’s favorite target in the passing game, the aforementioned Johnson, is back after recording 77 receptions for 1,013 receiving yards with eight touchdowns last season. He was the eighth most targeted wide receiver in the country last season — 135 targets — so expect to hear his name a lot.

Senior wide receiver Jamire Jordan and junior tight end Jared Rice also to figure to be key contributors in the Bulldogs’ pass attack.

On the ground, Fresno State relied on a stable of running backs last season and will look to do the same this year, led by sophomore Jordan Mims. The sophomore back split carries against Idaho with junior Josh Hokit and senior Dejonte O’Neal, but outscored his counterparts with three rushing touchdowns. The Bulldogs were without sophomore all-purpose back Ronnie Rivers, who is recovering from an injury suffered during spring practice.

The offensive line might be where the Bulldogs are most vulnerable, with the loss of two second-team All-Mountain West performers. Their replacements, both on the right side of the line, had their fair share of struggles against Idaho. If the Gophers’ defensive line can take advantage, that might be what their pass rush needs to kick into gear.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

We’ll see. The Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator last season, Orlondo Steinauer, orchestrated a remarkable turnaround before departing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Fresno State ranked 13th in defense overall, 45th in rushing defense, and 54th in pass defense last season, according to S&P+.

The previous year, the Bulldogs defense ranked 84th overall.

It will be interesting to see if new defensive coordinator Bert Watts, promoted from linebackers coach, can sustain that success. I doubt much of what we saw from the Bulldogs’ defense against Idaho will resemble the game plan against the Gophers. Fresno State was very intentionally vanilla on both sides of the ball. Considering their opponent, not much more was needed.

The bad news for the Gophers is that Fresno State returns all seven starters from their defensive backfield. The catch is that all four starters from the defensive line graduated. The Bulldogs’ revamped front four held up well against Idaho, but there won’t be much, if any, of a talent gap when they line up across from the Minnesota Movers.

If the Gophers’ offensive line can take advantage and open up some holes for running back Rodney Smith to get to the second level, waiting for him will be a linebacker corps led by junior Jeff Allison, who led the team in tackles last year. He and redshirt senior George Helmuth combined for 13.5 tackles for loss a season ago, including six sacks. Expect that pair to be part of the Bulldogs’ plan to frustrate and confuse Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad.

Annexstad will also have to deal with a secondary that is much more athletic and dangerous than the one he faced in his first start a week ago.

Jaron Bryant is one name to remember. The junior cornerback has a knack for big plays after clinching the Bulldogs’ Hawaii Bowl victory last season with an interception return for a touchdown. He certainly made his presence known against Idaho, as he was the one responsible for taking both blocked field goals to the house.

One of those blocked field goals came courtesy of his counterpart at cornerback, junior Tank Kelly, who also contributed five tackles, three pass break-ups, and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

Brace yourselves, because I think this is where a young and inexperienced Minnesota squad learns a hard lesson. Fresno State is talented and experience, and the Gophers possess the former but not the latter, at least at this point in the season. The Bulldogs’ formidable defense, especially, will present a challenge for a Minnesota offense that still needs time to grow and develop. The Gophers will also have their hands full on defense trying to contain a Fresno State offense that looked like a well-oiled machine in their season debut. Ultimately, I have to give the edge to the Bulldogs. Fresno State 31, Minnesota 24.