Hawaii Bowl: Fresno State vs. Houston Preview, Prediction
The Fresno State Bulldogs have been in many defensive fights in 2017, but will the Houston Cougars take that trend to a new level?
It isn’t just Ed Oliver in H-Town.
2017 HAWAII BOWL: Fresno State Bulldogs (9-4,7-1 Mountain West) vs. Houston Cougars (7-4, 5-3 American)
WHEN: Sunday, December 24 — 5:30 PM PT
WHERE: Aloha Stadium; Honolulu, Hawaii (50,000)
RADIO: The Fresno State broadcast can be heard on 940 AM (KFIG) and 1600 AM (KGST), the latter of which is the Spanish-language broadcast. The Houston broadcast can be heard on 950 AM (KPRC).
HAWAII BOWL HISTORY: Fresno State is 0-2 in two previous trips to the Hawaii Bowl, while Houston is 0-1.
SERIES HISTORY: This meeting will be the first between Houston and Fresno State.
The Fresno State Bulldogs have had a 2017 campaign that you might have imagined only in fever dreams. After finishing 1-11 last fall, the program’s worst year ever, head coach Jeff Tedford arrived with a new staff and opened the Bulldogs’ competitive window well ahead of schedule, claiming the West division title and pushing Boise State to the limit in the Mountain West title game.
By contrast, the Houston Cougars appear to have flown under the radar some in Major Applewhite’s first year at the helm, but there are some similarities between these two teams:
Like Fresno State, Houston dealt with quarterback controversy. Despite racing out to a 4-1 record, their midseason lull coincided with lackluster play under center and wasn’t resolved until D’Eriq King emerged to lead an upset of South Florida in late October.
Like Fresno State, the Cougars have often won with defense. They finished fourth in American Athletic Conference action in opponents’ third-down conversion rate, third in AAC action by yards per play allowed and second in points per game allowed.
Like Fresno State, they’ve strived to remain balanced on offense. The Cougars threw the ball 368 times and ran (after adjusting for sacks) 396 times, a 52-48 split between run and pass, while the Bulldogs threw 386 times and ran 451 times, an approximate 54-46 split.
Having already dealt with the likes of San Diego State, Wyoming and Boise State, it may not seem like a big deal to face one last rock right before heading into the offseason, but the Cougars played some of their best football down the stretch by going 3-1 in November and claim the single most impactful player the Bulldogs have faced all year.
What can each team do to avoid going back to the mainland with a lump of coal after Christmas Eve? Here’s what to watch.
Three Keys for Houston
Can the Cougars continue to protect their quarterback?
Part of what has helped D’Eriq King be so successful in November is the fact that, after the grueling contest with USF, the offensive line has been exceptional in pass protection. The Bulls sacked King five times, but he’s been taken down just once since that game.
Fresno State’s pass rush will be the best King has faced yet. The Bulldogs had 26 sacks in Mountain West play, more than Navy and East Carolina and Tulane — Houston’s last three foes — had in AAC action combined, meaning that the ‘Dogs might be able to exploit potential weaknesses that conference opponents could not. The Bulls, for instance, had a lot of success creating pressure right up the middle with Deadrin Senat, which should make Bulldogs defensive tackle Malik Forrester against Houston center Will Noble a must-watch matchup.
Can the Cougar front seven stifle Fresno State’s running attack?
Another major key to Houston’s late-season surge has been the ability to limit big gains on the ground. They’ve held each of their last five opponents under 3.3 Highlight Yards/Opportunity (yards gained after the offensive line has done its job within the first five) and, perhaps more simply, allowed just four runs of 20-plus yards since the beginning of October. Against the likes of Quinton Flowers and the Midshipmen, that’s impressive.
More importantly, it could make for a huge advantage when none of Fresno State’s three leading rushers — Ronnie Rivers, Josh Hokit and Jordan Mims — has averaged more than 3.6 Highlight Yards/Opportunity on the season. And this isn’t just an opportunity where Ed Oliver can shine by himself, either, as four different Cougar defenders have racked up at least 3.5 tackles for loss in November.
The nightmare scenario for Fresno State, which Houston surely hopes to stick with this point, is that the Bulldogs get pushed backwards (a rarity, as they rank second nationally in Stuff Rate) early and often, forcing Marcus McMaryion to win the game with his arm.
Can the Cougars find enough success on passing downs?
Houston leads the FBS with a 69.5% completion rate on third downs this year, and King himself has completed an absurd 28-of-36 on Passing Downs (second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more) in his four starts, but their ability to gain yards and move the chains in that stretch has been more uneven: Houston’s Passing Down Success Rate was comfortably above 40% against Tulane and East Carolina, but under 30% against South Florida and Navy.
Fresno State’s secondary, meanwhile, has thrived in such situations all year, ranking 9th nationally in defensive Passing Down Success Rate. Steven Dunbar should play a critical role one way or the other, as he goes into Saturday with a 68.8% catch rate and a FBS-best 30 third-down catches, though he has just 16 first downs on those catches. If Bulldogs cornerbacks Jaron Bryant and Anthoula Kelly can get the better of that 50-50 proposition against the senior receiver, it will put Houston at a disadvantage.
Three Keys for Fresno State
Can the Bulldogs recapture their potency on first downs?
One of the subtle factors that affected the Bulldogs in the Mountain West championship is that their efficiency on early downs evaporated. While the running game, with 103 yards on 19 first down carries, enjoyed a better performance than in the four games which preceded it, the offense had three penalties on 32 overall plays after averaging just one across the prior month, and Marcus McMaryion struggled in a position where he’s often thrived.
Considering that Houston will likely clog the interior and bring more pressure than the Bulldogs are accustomed to, McMaryion will have to perform more like the quarterback who was 28-of-39, with 9.4 yards per attempt, in the regular season’s last four games and less like the passer who went 6-of-13 for 67 yards in the title game. Getting in a rhythm early with short and intermediate passes to Jamire Jordan and Jared Rice, or with swing passes and screens to the running backs, could be a path to keeping the Cougars defense on its heels.
Can the Bulldogs land the home run play?
It wasn’t from lack of trying in the Mountain West championship game, but another factor that worked against Fresno State in their title game loss was that the downfield passing game never materialized in the way that coordinator Kalen DeBoer must have hoped. McMaryion’s longest completion of the game was just 22 yards; he had 12 passes longer than that in the four previous games, stretching back to the victory over BYU.
This is where Jordan and number one receiver Keesean Johnson can play a significant role, as they both had six catches of 30-plus yards in Mountain West play, but it may also be easier said than done.
Like Fresno State’s own Juju Hughes and Mike Bell, the Cougars have a talented safety tandem of their own in Terrell Williams and Garrett Davis, who have combined for eight interceptions. In addition, they combined for 15 passes defended when adding senior Khalil Williams’s contributions, so it should come as no surprise that Houston allowed just 13 plays of 30-plus yards in AAC action.
Can the offense rally late, if necessary?
One last thing that the Bulldogs have struggled mightily with in 2017, which doomed them in their lone conference loss to UNLV and in the title game, is how the offense has played in the fourth quarter. There isn’t one culprit for this, but the numbers don’t lie: In their last six fourth quarters, Fresno State has averaged an anemic 3.5 yards per play.
If you remove one play, Keesean Johnson’s 81-yard touchdown from the regular season finale, the figure drops to 2.7 yards per play. Either way, it’s ugly.
Fairly or unfairly, this also falls largely on the quarterback’s shoulders. Among 63 Group of 5 quarterbacks who’ve thrown the ball at least 40 times in the fourth quarter, only Ball State’s Jack Milas and Kent State’s George Bollas have accrued a worse QB rating than Marcus McMaryion’s 81.92 mark.
He’s actually been slightly better on third downs (88.92), which I’ve written about exhaustively in past previews, than he has in crunch time and this has had the effect of making some games — Wyoming, BYU, San Jose State — closer than they should have been. If it’s a one-score game late because the defense is again putting the clamps on an opponent, the passing offense must find a way to make plays and carry equal weight.
Number(s) of the game
3.64 and 3.48. Those are the points allowed per trip inside the 40 by Fresno State and Houston, respectively, and they rank 13th and 9th in the FBS. Put another way, both teams allowed a touchdown in the red zone exactly 54.55% of the time in conference play (Fresno State: 12-of-22; Houston: 18-of-33). Whoever wins this battle will win this game.
This doesn’t strike me as a particularly good matchup for the Bulldogs, in the way that Boise State, at least, seemed like a battle of equals. The Cougars, like the Broncos, are remarkably similar to Fresno State, but it’s also clear that Houston will take the field with a singular talent that could disrupt many key strengths.
I do anticipate that the defense will play at its usual level, but I won’t be surprised if the offense scuffles more than usual because of the man in the middle of the Houston defense. If you’ve been paying attention to Fresno State football throughout November, expect more of the same, but the Bulldogs will probably need another year to erase its bowl drought. Houston 20, Fresno State 13.