When the Fresno State Bulldogs and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors renew acquaintances in Honolulu on Saturday night it will be for second place in the Mountain West's aptly-named West division.
These teams are certainly no stranger to each other, with Fresno State maintaining a 28-22-1 edge, including wins in each of the past two matchups. Hawaii (5-3, 2-2 MW) will be looking for some payback at home following last season's 52-20 beatdown stateside. The Bulldogs (3-4, 1-2) are trying to get back to .500 and build some momentum as they need three more victories to become bowl eligible. The defending Mountain West champions have taken several steps back following last season's 12-win campaign.
Both teams are looking up at San Diego State in the division standings and each will face the Aztecs later this month — Fresno State gets SDSU at home on Nov. 15, Hawaii will make the trip to San Diego on Nov. 23 — meaning they are very much alive for a spot in the Mountain West Championship Game.
But the first order of business is Saturday night's head-to-head encounter in Aloha Stadium. The Rainbow Warriors enter with more momentum coming off of a 45-31 road victory over New Mexico while the Bulldogs suffered a 41-31 home loss to Colorado State.
Fresno State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2, at 11:59 p.m. ET
Spread: Hawaii -2
When Fresno State Has the Ball
The Bulldogs would be smart to keep the ball on the ground in this one. That's because Hawaii is saddled with one of the worst run defenses in all of college football, allowing an average of nearly six yards per carry (5.7) and 205 yards per game.
And Fresno State boasts the horses to take advantage of such a porous unit in Ronnie Rivers and Josh Hokit. Rivers is the team's leading ground gainer with 450 yards and six scores while Hokit has made the most of his 42 carries, which have gone for 183 yards and eight touchdowns.
Wide receiver Jalen Cropper has provided a big-play threat when given the opportunity to tote the rock, averaging an eye-popping 19 yards on his 14 attempts. Quarterback Jorge Renya also has chipped in with 148 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
But the senior signal-caller is most effective with his arm, throwing for 1,655 yards and 10 touchdowns while completing 63.1 percent of his attempts. While he's not prolific, Renya is accurate enough that he should be able to take advantage of a Hawaii defense that's giving up 233 passing yards per game.
But the key for the Bulldogs is to establish the run, as that will help keep the ball out of the hands of the Warriors' potent offense.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
While Fresno State may prefer to stay grounded, the Rainbow Warriors love to air it out. And why not with Cole McDonald at the controls?
The junior quarterback is among the nation's top passers with 2,521 yards (fourth in FBS), 24 touchdowns (tied for fourth), and a completion rate of 65.5 percent (30th). He has tossed 11 interceptions, but that's understandable considering the number of attempts (313 second only to Washington State's Anthony Gordon) and a little more acceptable given his other numbers.
With McDonald leading the way, Hawaii is third in the nation at 354.5 passing yards per game. Not surprisingly, several pass catchers are the beneficiaries of this approach, as the Warriors boast three of the Mountain West's six most productive receivers in terms of yardage. Senior Cedric Byrd is second with 689 yards but he paces the conference in both receptions (59) and touchdowns (nine). Those numbers also place him among the top five in the country in both categories.
Byrd is joined by JoJo Ward (37 receptions, 587 yards, 7 TDs) and Jared Smart (44, 522, TD) among the Mountain West's leading targets with Jason-Matthew Sharsh (39, 407, TD) giving McDonald a fourth reliable option to throw to.
"These guys have four guys I think over 400, 500 yards so they spread it around really well," Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford said earlier this week. "They're very fast. The quarterback is very accurate. They do a great job with what they do, so you can't really focus on one guy because they are very, very balanced."
It's a bad time for Fresno State to see such a monster passing attack, since the defense has been victimized by big-chunk plays far too often the last few weeks — nine of 20 yards or more in the past two games alone.
But wait, Hawaii can run the ball, too. As a team, the Warriors are averaging five yards per carry but that number goes up to nearly six (5.9) in conference play. This balance is another reason why Hawaii is tied with Air Force in scoring offense (36.6 ppg), which is not good considering Fresno State is giving up 31 points per game.
Hawaii's potent passing attack is enough by itself to put pressure on Fresno State's disappearing defense. It's just the wrong time for Jeff Tedford's team to make a trip to the islands. Cole McDonald and company will be too much as the Warriors will score early and often and put some distance between them and the Bulldogs — on the scoreboard as well as the Mountain West standings.