Well, well, well. We meet again. Specifically the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Fresno State Bulldogs, who are primed for a Saturday rematch after Antoine Winfield Jr.’s last-second heroics secured a 21-14 victory for the home team in 2018. Now the Gophers are hitting the road, hoping to find fortune in the West and improve to 2-0 in their young season.
But will they? We shall see.
Were they any good last year?
2018 Record: 12-2 (7-1, 1st MWC West)
Postseason: W 31-20 vs Arizona State, Las Vegas Bowl
Final 2018 S&P+ Ranking: 9th
Yes. The Bulldogs were a Top 25 team by the end of the season, with both of the blemishes on their record coming against bowl-bound teams — Minnesota and Boise State — in games decided by a single score. Fresno State was able to avenge that loss to the Broncos by edging them in overtime of the Mountain West championship game, before capping their season with a decisive Las Vegas Bowl triumph over Arizona State.
But fortunately for the Gophers, most of that championship team is gone. Starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion graduated, star wide receiver KeeSean Johnson is playing on Sundays, and all but one of the Bulldogs’ five starting offensive linemen from last season have departed. Fresno State also lost their offensive coordinator to Indiana.
There were also holes to fill on defense for the Bulldogs. Four of their top five tacklers from last season needed to be replaced in the offseason, including leading tackler and linebacker Jeff Allison and junior safety Mike Bell, both of whom left early for the NFL.
Can they score on offense?
Even without McMaryion under center, the Bulldogs have another dynamic athlete taking snaps. Senior quarterback Jorge Reyna was the focal point of Fresno State’s offensive attack against USC in last week’s season-opening loss, leading the team in passing — 256 passing yards and two touchdowns — and rushing — 20 carries for 88 rushing yards. But it was something of a mixed bag for Reyna in his debut, as he only completed 50 percent of his passes and was responsible for three turnovers — throwing one interception and losing two fumbles.
Through the air, Reyna spread the wealth, as the Bulldogs set out rebuilding their wide receiver corps. Senior Darrion Grim and sophomore Chris Coleman entered the season as the only two wideouts on the roster with a collegiate reception, and the pair led Fresno State in receiving at USC. Grim and Coleman combined for five receptions for 157 receiving yards and both of the Bulldogs’ passing touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Zane Pope led the team with four receptions. Senior tight end Jared Rice had a quiet night — three receptions for 11 yards — after a breakout season in 2018, hauling in 55 receptions for 664 yards and three touchdowns.
Leading rusher Ronnie Rivers is back but had a quiet game against the Trojans, rushing for 53 yards on 14 carries. He was operating behind an offensive line that includes returning starter and right tackle Syrus Tuitel. Left guard Netane Muti is something of a sleeper for those not paying attention. He started all 14 games of his redshirt freshman season before missing nearly all of last season due to a knee injury suffered against Minnesota. Muti is healthy now and proved last week against USC that he is going to be a force to reckon with.
So much of the firepower from a season ago is no longer on campus, but there is enough raw talent here that the Bulldogs could be a problem for opposing defenses, especially if they fail to contain Reyna on the ground and through the air.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The strength of the Bulldogs’ defense is their defensive line. Every member of their starting front four has experience, led by senior defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo. Their success is predicated on the defensive linemen drawing a lot of double-teams, allowing their linebackers to operate in space. Chief among the linebacker corps is redshirt senior Mykal Walker, who is stepping into the shoes vacated by last year’s leading tackler Jeff Allison. The versatile athlete played out of position at defensive end last season due to depth, earning all-conference honors. But now Walker has returned to his natural position and made his presence known immediately, leading the Fresno State defense with 15 total tackles against USC.
Joining Walker at linebacker is redshirt junior Justin Rice, a converted running back who redshirted last season after being buried on the depth chart behind a veteran group of linebackers. Rice is another defender whose coveted combination of athleticism and football IQ makes him an invaluable asset to the Bulldog defense. He even notched his first career interception against USC, which also marked his first career start at linebacker.
And while Fresno State may have lost safety Mike Bell to the NFL, senior safety Juju Hughes and senior cornerback Jaron Bryant are both third-year starters. New starting cornerback Chris Gaston acquitted himself well, recording 12 tackles and two passes defended against the Trojans.
Fresno State fielded one of the top defenses in college football a season ago, and it appears the Bulldogs are reloading rather than rebuilding after losing a couple of their best defenders. The key for Minnesota will be to have success early. USC opened up a 17-3 lead in the second quarter before losing their starting quarterback due to injury, but they were able to weather the storm from there and fend off a furious late game rally.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
This is a game that will be decided in the trenches. Can the Gophers’ defensive front pressure and contain Jacob Reyna? Can the Minnesota offensive line open up running lanes against a tough Fresno State defensive line? I expect it will be a close contest. Ultimately, I think the Gophers will escape California with a win after another nail-biter. Minnesota 27, Fresno State 20.