Thursday night will bring together a pair of Mountain West Conference teams that are trying to find their identity under the direction of new head coaches. Steve Addazio will lead a Colorado State Rams team that finished 4-8 (3-5 MWC) last year to open up their 2020 season at the Fresno State Bulldogs (0-1, 0-1), which has Kalen DeBoer as its new head coach after Jeff Tedford stepped down after three seasons.
Addazio takes over in Fort Collins for Mike Bobo in what, on the surface, appears to be a very odd fit considering his background. Addazio is coming off a middling tenure at Boston College, where he was let go after the 2019 season and a 44-44 record in Chestnut Hill. Months into his tenure, the university investigated alleged COVID-19 violations, racial insensitivity, and verbal harassment, but issued no disciplinary action. Consequently, athletic director Joe Parker's new hire at head coach has to work on the field as he can ill afford to have this turn into another Bobo type of hire that alienates everyone that supports the program.
Fresno State kicked off their season last Saturday night against Hawaii and dropped a 34-19 decision to the Rainbow Warriors. The Bulldogs got off to a fast start as they took advantage of a forced fumble and jumped out to a 7-0 lead thanks to a seven-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Rivers. But it would not last, as the defense did not have any answers for the Hawaii ground attack that rushed for 323 yards on 53 attempts for a 6.1-yard average. Jake Haener was uneven in his first start with 17-of 31-passing for 289 yards and a touchdown pass. Turnovers were a huge problem for Haener too; he threw three interceptions along with a fumble. The turnovers by Haener will hopefully subside as the season goes along and he gets on the same page with his receivers.
Colorado State at Fresno State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 29 at 10 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Colorado State -1.5
When Colorado State Has the Ball
Patrick O'Brien is back at quarterback, and that will provide some much-needed stability for Addazio. O'Brien threw for 2,803 yards, 13 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in 2019. The next step for O'Brien in his growth will be to elevate his completion rate from 61.8 percent to the 65-70-percent range by standing strong in the pocket. Playmaking wide receiver Warren Jackson declared for the NFL draft back in August, so there is some work to do for offensive coordinator Joey Lynch to find that go-to target for O'Brien.
Dante Wright is the top candidate to fill Jackson's shoes since he caught 56 passes for 802 yards and four touchdowns last season. So, look for Wright to get plenty of targets against a Bulldog secondary that is going through some growing pains. In the running game, Marcus McElroy Jr. is a textbook Addazio type of back at 235 pounds who could get 25 carries this week to pound on the Fresno State defensive line and wear them down late in the second half.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
It is going to be important for the offensive line to take control of the line of scrimmage right away. Rivers will need to exploit a Colorado State rush defense that allowed 195.8 yards per game in 2019. Staying committed to the running game will give the offense a chance to stay on schedule and potentially limit turnovers. Haener will have to make better decisions this week, especially with the potential for possessions ending up at a premium if the Colorado State gets their running game going as expected.
Third down is going to be another key to victory for the Bulldogs since they only converted five of 12 last week against Hawaii. Any improvement from the wide receiver corps this week will help this category a great deal. Keric Wheatfall and Chris Coleman caught a combined four passes for 124 yards last week and will need to at least double their number of catches in order to keep the chains moving. Now, this will be easier said than done for Fresno State because the Rams were strong against the pass in 2019, as they limited teams to just 181.6 passing yards per game, seventh-best in the FBS.
The Bulldogs have the advantage of having a game under their belt and should see some improvement on both sides of the ball. Colorado State has the better quarterback in O'Brien, who should be able to take advantage of the Fresno State secondary and throw for about 275 yards. This game will be hanging in the balance well into the fourth quarter since both teams are evenly matched outside of the quarterback position. In the end, look for the Rams to grind out a one-score win late with McElroy sealing it with his legs to give them their first win of 2020.
Prediction: Colorado State 30, Fresno State 23
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.
(Ronnie Rivers photo courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)