Two teams in desperate need of a win meet Friday night in a Mountain West showdown at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno. It’s a new era of Fresno State football as interim head coach Eric Kiesau leads the Bulldogs for the first time following the dismissal of Tim DeRuyter. Kiesau will attempt to stop a six-game losing streak — the longest for the program since 2006 — and pick up Fresno State’s first conference win of the season (and just its second overall).
Air Force played like a potential Mountain West title contender earlier this season and jumped out to a 4-0 start that included an impressive 28-14 victory over Navy. However, the Falcons have lost each of their last three games and are now just 1-3 in conference play. A victory over the Bulldogs would give Air Force some much-needed momentum down the stretch as the Falcons take aim at a third consecutive bowl bid.
Air Force at Fresno State
Kickoff: Friday Oct. 28 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Air Force -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Fresno State Head Coaching Search
One of the most important storylines in this game has nothing to do with what will happen on the field. Tim DeRuyter, who was fired following last week’s 38-20 loss to Utah State, began his career 20-6 and led the Bulldogs to the 2013 Mountain West title, but was just 10-25 in his final two and a half seasons. With bowl hopes dashed and a third consecutive losing season guaranteed, many Fresno State fans and alumni have already turned their attention to who the next head coach of the Bulldogs will be.
Former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford appears to be an early favorite for the job, though Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin — a Fresno State alum that was a backup quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1994-96 and a student assistant from ‘97-98 — would be a an intriguing option if the school were able to lure the former USC and Oakland Raiders head coach back to the valley. Other names are sure to emerge as the coaching search takes shape in the coming weeks.
2. Can Fresno State Slow Down the Air Force Rushing Attack?
Relying on an option offense for the last few decades, Air Force often ranks among the leaders in rushing yards per game. This season is no different as the Falcons have the No. 2 rushing offense in the Mountain West and rank fifth nationally with an average of 291.4 yards per game. Five different Air Force players have gained more than 250 yards on the ground this year, led by D.J. Johnson (452 yards), Jacobi Owens (434 yards, 3 TD) and Shayne Davern (305 yards, 2 TD).
Fresno State will be challenged to slow down the Falcons on the ground – a tall task given the unit’s struggles against the run this season. The Bulldogs have allowed an average of 266 rushing yards per game, which ranks 11th in the conference and No. 124 nationally, as opponents are gaining 5.2 yards per carry. Fresno State has allowed at least 200 rushing yards in six consecutive games, all losses, and the Bulldogs’ leaky defense has played a big role in the squad being outgained by an average of 83 total yards per game.
3. Big-Play Tim McVey
Air Force has one of the top special teams units in the nation. Kicker Luke Strebel set a program record by connecting on 22 consecutive field goal attempts, which was the longest streak in the nation when it unfortunately ended in the final seconds of regulation against Hawaii last week. Punter Steve Brosy averages 42.6 yards per punt this season, and Brodie Hicks blocked a punt against Navy.
However, the player that makes the biggest impact is Tim McVey, whose 32.9 yards per kickoff return leads the Mountain West and ranks third nationally. McVey’s average was boosted by a 99-yard touchdown return against Georgia State, and he added a 59-yard return that set up a touchdown drive the following week against Utah State.
McVey also is a key member of the Falcons’ offense. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior is only the team’s fourth-leading rusher, but his 7.8 yards per carry and five rushing touchdowns both lead the way. McVey also ranks second on the team with 166 receiving yards and two touchdowns on just five receptions – good for an electric 33.2 yards per catch. Overall, McVey ranks ninth in the Mountain West with an average of 106.3 all-purpose yards per game and is fourth in the league with an explosive average of 14.9 yards per touch.
Although the Falcons run early and often, Air Force also has had success through the air this season as well, which makes the offense even more diverse and dangerous than usual. Overall, the Falcons have averaged 452.3 total yards of offense per game and 5.9 yards per play.
Quarterback Nate Romine has completed just 40.4 percent of his passes, but has connected for 1,109 yards and nine touchdowns with just four interceptions. Romine has posted the Mountain West’s second-best QB rating among starters (156.4) thanks in large part to explosive wide receiver Jalen Robinette (21 receptions, 568 yards, 4 TD), who leads the nation in yards per catch (27.0) among receivers that average at least two receptions per game.
Fresno State also has the ability to move the football on the ground with running back Dontel James (582 rushing yards, 4 TD), and quarterback Chason Virgil (1,170 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT; 134 rushing yards, 2 TD) has three quality receivers to throw to, but the Bulldogs average only 350.4 total yards per contest and just 4.8 yards per play – both of which rank last in the Mountain West.
The Bulldogs’ struggling offensive line has allowed 19 sacks, which is the second most in the Mountain West while the Air Force defense has recorded 20 sacks, No. 2 in the conference. Led by Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist Weston Steelhammer, Air Force has held opponents to 348.1 total yards per game and the Falcons have surrendered just 121.3 rushing yards per game this season — both of which rank second in the league and among the top 25 FBS teams.
Simply put, despite its current three-game losing streak, Air Force clearly appears to be a better team than Fresno State, a point that is further underscored by the fact the Bulldogs fired their head coach this past weekend. Fresno State may be able to hang tough early at home, but expect the Falcons to come out on top and pick up an important Mountain West victory.
Prediction: Air Force 31, Fresno State 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.