The Bulldogs and Broncos meet on Friday night in Boise
Fresno State travels to Boise State on Friday night in one of the must-see matchups for Week 11 and a potential preview of the Mountain West Championship Game. In addition to the stakes within the conference, the Bulldogs are in the hunt to rank as the top Group of 5 team should UCF stumble at any point this year. A loss on Friday night would likely end those hopes or at least make it a steeper climb depending on results from the American and Mountain West teams the rest of the year.
Boise State was projected by most to be a top 25 team in 2018, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team is 7-2 through nine games and unranked entering Friday night’s contest. The Broncos opened the year with a solid road victory at Troy (56-20) but stumbled two weeks later at Oklahoma State (44-21) and lost at home to San Diego State (19-13) on Oct. 6. Boise State rebounded from the loss to the Aztecs by winning four in a row, including a 31-27 road victory at Nevada and a 21-16 win against BYU last Saturday. As usual, the Broncos are led by a high-powered offense. Harsin’s team is averaging 40.1 points a game, with quarterback Brett Rypien leading the Mountain West by averaging 320.6 yards a game.
Jeff Tedford has quickly elevated Fresno State back into one of the top Group of 5 programs in the nation. The Bulldogs finished 1-11 in 2016 but improved to 10-4 in ’17 (Tedford's first year) and are off to an 8-1 start this fall. Tedford’s team is led by the steady play of quarterback Marcus McMaryion and standout receiver KeeSean Johnson, along with a defense that leads the Mountain West in fewest points per game (13.5). Fresno State’s lone defeat came at Minnesota (21-14), as this program has won all eight of its contests by 18 points or more.
Boise State holds a 14-6 series edge over Fresno State. This is also the third meeting between these two teams in less than a year. The Bulldogs won 28-17 in the regular season last fall, with the Broncos claiming a 17-14 win on the conference title game.
Fresno State at Boise State
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 9 at 10:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Fresno State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Fresno State QB Marcus McMaryion Against Boise State’s Defense
Tedford’s background on offense has certainly paid dividends for the Bulldogs on this side of the ball over the last two years. McMaryion – a graduate transfer from Oregon State – joined the program prior to the 2017 season and finished the year with 2,726 yards and 14 passing scores to just five interceptions. As expected, McMaryion has taken a significant step forward in 2018. He’s completing 70.9 percent of his passes for 2,416 yards and 20 touchdowns to just three picks.
KeeSean Johnson (62 catches for 858 yards and six scores) has been McMaryion’s go-to target the last two years and is well on his way to earning first-team All-Mountain West honors. Tight end Jared Rice (38) and Jamire Jordan (20) round out the other key weapons in the passing game for McMaryion, with running backs Jordan Mims (19) and Ronnie Rivers (10) also contributing. The Bulldogs don’t have a player over 400 rushing yards this season, but Rivers is averaging 5.9 yards a carry through six games. Additionally, this group is averaging 4.2 yards per rush and ranks seventh in the Mountain West in overall production on the ground (150.6).
Protecting McMaryion is going to be crucial for Fresno State’s hopes of a win on the blue turf. The Bulldogs have allowed only five sacks, but the Broncos have generated 24. Leading tackler Riley Whimpey (55) was lost for the year due to a torn ACL in the win last Saturday, but Curtis Weaver (7.5 sacks), Jabril Frazier (5.5) and Durrant Miles (4.5) will be a handful for Fresno State’s line. Boise State’s secondary ranks eighth in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense and has allowed nine plays of 40 yards or more. The Broncos are also giving up 5.8 yards a play and 23.7 points a game this fall.
The matchup comes down to this: Can Fresno State protect McMaryion and give him time to throw downfield? Or can Boise State generate pressure up front, preventing the senior from picking apart the secondary downfield?
2. Boise State’s Offense Versus Fresno State’s Defense
Similar to the first section, get ready for a clash of strength versus strength when Boise State’s offense and Fresno State’s defense takes the field on Friday night.
Despite losing coordinator Orlondo Steinauer to the CFL, Fresno State’s defense has picked up where it left off last fall. The Bulldogs will bring a suffocating unit to the blue turf, limiting opponents to 12.3 points a game and just 4.5 yards per play. The strength of this unit is a secondary that has allowed only eight passing scores and limits opposing quarterbacks to just 48.1 percent in completion percentage. Fresno State is also solid against the run, limiting teams to 128.8 yards a contest and 3.6 a carry. The Bulldogs rank seventh in the Mountain West in sacks generated (16) but have forced 21 takeaways.
Quarterback Brett Rypien is the catalyst behind Boise State’s high-powered offense. The senior has passed for 2,779 yards and 24 touchdowns to just six picks this season. Additionally, Rypien has connected on 67.7 percent of his throws. The Broncos have a deep group of options to test Fresno State’s secondary. Sean Modster (45) leads the team in catches and yards, with A.J. Richardson, CT Thomas and John Hightower each eclipsing at least 30 receptions so far in 2018. Hightower was banged up in the win over BYU and no information was released regarding his status for this game.
In addition to testing a standout Fresno State defense through the air, the Broncos can be a handful on the ground. Running back Alexander Mattison enters Friday night’s matchup with 726 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. As a team, Boise State is averaging four yards a carry and has posted four consecutive games of 100 or more yards. In last week’s win over UNLV, Fresno State surrendered 197 rushing yards (a season high), but this unit is holding opponents to 3.6 a carry.
Boise State’s offense is the best group Fresno State’s standout defense has played in 2018. The Bulldogs have allowed only one opponent to exceed 25 points this season, but that will be tested against Rypien and his standout group of receivers. However, pass protection will be crucial for Boise State. The Broncos have allowed 23 sacks this season and was an area of concern in losses to San Diego State and Oklahoma State.
3. Turnovers, Sacks and Third Downs
With a tight game expected on the scoreboard, a few small areas could make a big difference.
Fresno State has been better in the turnover department, sporting a plus-14 margin through nine games. Boise State isn’t far behind at plus-six. The Bulldogs lead the Mountain West in third-down defense, while the Broncos are first in third-down conversions. Getting touchdowns or holding an offense to a field goal could make a big difference in this matchup. Fresno State has a big edge here, as Tedford’s group ranks third in the conference in red zone offense, with Boise State tied for eighth. The Bulldogs also rank first in red zone defense, while the Broncos are fifth.
Fresno State doesn’t give up a ton of sacks, but can an active Boise State front change that on Friday night? And on the flipside, can the Bulldogs generate havoc plays up front to limit Rypien’s time to throw downfield?
It’s rare to see Boise State an underdog at home. However, that’s the scenario setting up for Friday night. Both teams have been effective and prolific on offense. However, Fresno State has the edge on defense, which might be the deciding factor in this game. Rypien and McMaryion is an entertaining quarterback duel to watch, but the play of the offensive lines will be critical for both to have an effective night. Which team can generate enough production out of their ground game to keep the defense off balance and get to the quarterback on passing downs? The Broncos’ pass rush will be a handful for McMaryion, but the guess here is Fresno State finds a way to earn a close victory.