Fresno State vs. Hawaii: Game Preview
Can the Warriors get back on track and surprise the West-leading Bulldogs, or will Fresno State continue its strong Mountain West run?
The Golden Screwdriver is on the line between two long-time rivals.
WEEK 11: Fresno State Bulldogs (6-3, 4-1 Mountain West) vs. Hawaii Warriors (3-6, 1-5 MW)
WHEN: Saturday, November 11 — 8:00 PM PT
WHERE: Hawaiian Tel FCU Field at Aloha Stadium; Honolulu, Hawaii (50,000)
TV: The game can be found in and around Fresno on the local NBC affiliate, KSEE 24. In Hawaii, the game will be broadcast on Spectrum Sports Pay Per View.
RADIO: The Fresno State broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM. The Hawaii broadcast can be heard on ESPN 1420 in Honolulu.
SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs currently hold a 26-22-1 advantage in the series. In their last meeting on November 19, 2016, Hawaii defeated Fresno State 14-13 at Bulldog Stadium.
Things haven’t gone according to plan in year two of the Nick Rolovich era.
After surprising many by making a bowl appearance in 2016, the Hawaii Warriors have struggled in conference play this fall. A lackluster defense that currently ranks 11th in yards per play allowed through six conference games hasn’t helped, but the offense appears have taken a step backwards after losing top receiver John Ursua for the season to injury, too.
Meanwhile, the Fresno State Bulldogs appeared to get back on track in a win against BYU last Saturday, clinching bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. A trip to the islands may not seem so daunting, either, considering that the ‘Dogs haven’t lost in Honolulu since 2007. With first place and a postseason berth in hand, however, are they primed to fall into another trap game?
Three Keys for Fresno State
Can the front seven contain Diocemy Saint Juste?
Rashaad Penny might be running away with offensive player of the year honors at this point, but Hawaii’s senior running back has surpassed his 2016 numbers with ease and has become the Warriors’ go-to weapon for a big play. His eight runs of 20 or more yards ranks 5th in the Mountain West.
Without Ursua, though, the offense has been reliant on Saint Juste’s production and San Diego State has proven that he can be shut down, as he ran for just 40 yards two weeks ago. It’ll be interesting to see which of Hawaii’s offensive line and Fresno State’s defensive line can gain the upper hand early, as both rank in the top 20 among Stuff Rate and in the top 25 in Power Success Rate. How Hawaii handles short-yardage situations will be a huge factor in how this game plays out.
How many big passing plays can Marcus McMaryion create?
If it seems like the Fresno State quarterback doesn’t take to the air often enough, it’s probably by design: In the last three weeks, the Bulldogs have run the ball 64% of the time. While McMaryion’s has completed just eight plays of more than 20 yards in that time, he’s done so on just 63 attempts, which equals one in every eight dropbacks. That’s not bad at all.
Against this Hawaii secondary, though, offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer might consider attacking early and often. The Warriors have allowed 29 plays of more than 20 yards through the air in six Mountain West games, by far the worst figure in the conference, and opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 165.64 rating in the first quarter of games (roughly equivalent to what J.T. Barrett and Will Grier have done on the season to date).
And even if it’s close late, it might be worth putting the game in McMaryion’s hands despite his season-long fourth-quarter struggles. Hawaii has defended just ten passes in conference play, next to last in the Mountain West, and allowed 11 passing touchdowns in 38 red zone attempts.
Can the running game find its fifth gear?
After last year’s disastrous efforts at running the football, complaining about this year’s successes often feels unusual but it’s worth noting that, while McMaryion’s recent rate of explosive plays is probably fine, the ground attack has been more steady than gamebreaking with just eight runs of more than 10 yards on 112 attempts in the last three weeks, a lackluster 7.1% rate.
If freshman Ronnie Rivers can prove he’s 100% healthy and reclaim the lead back role, he’s the most likely solution for this problem (such as it is): His 4.2 Highlight Yards per Opportunity (yards gained once the line has “done its job”) is the best such figure among Fresno’s running trio. The unit has been great at salting games away and keeping the offense on schedule, but they may need to provide a knockout blow at some point in this game.
Three Keys for Hawaii
Can Dru Brown rediscover the big play?
It’s not a coincidence that the junior quarterback has posted his two worst yards per attempt figures of 2017 in the two weeks following Ursua’s injury, but he’s also slumped to a completion rate under 60% in the last three weeks. He rediscovered a little bit of playmaking in last week’s loss against UNLV, completing four passes of 20+ yards, but he’ll probably need to create more against a dangerous secondary.
Fresno State didn’t have any interceptions last week — the lone pick-six was called by penalty — but they came very close to creating turnovers several times against BYU and defended ten passes altogether, so it may seem counterintuitive to attack this way. However, if Dylan Collie, who’s caught 16 passes in the last three weeks, can continue to provide chunk plays from the slot, it makes the matchup that much more interesting.
Can the offense finish drives?
One of the biggest reasons for Hawaii’s disappointing showing is that the offense has not been nearly as effective at getting six points as they were last year. After finishing 11th in points per trip inside the 40 in 2016, the Warriors now rank 100th through nine games.
Quietly, and somewhat remarkably with its recent history, the Hawaii special teams have been a huge negative. Alex Trifonovitch’s three field goals last week increased Hawaii’s season total to… four. In eight total tries. As a result, Brown (with a 51% red zone completion rate and two INTs) and Saint Juste (34 red zone carries, 19th in the FBS) have shouldered a lot of responsibility for punching it in. Against a defense that ranks 29th in points allowed per trip inside the 40, it’s a tough but crucial task.
Can the secondary force McMaryion into a mistake?
For as much as Hawaii’s defensive backfield has bent in the last few weeks (and it’s been a lot), they have forced an interception in four straight games. Interestingly, they’ve earned just three points on those four drives, but continuing to create their own breaks might be the best road to victory.
This is easier said than done, of course, as McMaryion has thrown just one interception in 174 attempts, a rate bested only by Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. If they can contest more passes than they have all season — no one on the team has more than four pass breakups — a tip drill interception might be all the offense needs to create a serious upset bid.