The Fresno State Bulldogs know how to charge up a crowd. After all, they’ve been electric in a sizzling 4-1 start to the football season and a much-heralded rise in the rankings to No. 18 in the AP Top 25.
The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors can set off fireworks, too … especially at home. But with no fans in the stands at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletic Complex in Honolulu for Saturday’s Mountain West tilt between the two teams, will the offenses flicker in what would seem to be a high-octane battle?
"You know … last year wasn't a lot of fun without fans, so it's going to be a little bit of that," Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer told reporters. "But I think where we're at as a football team right now and what we're playing for each and every week is a huge asset for us going into this football game, where you gotta have that internal fire and that internal motivation to be driven to get it done this Saturday."
The Bulldogs will need to find spark if they hope to continue the successful season at hand. Because Hawaii’s already gotten used to playing in front of nobody on home turf, having gone 1-1 on island time.
UH, which is a hard enough place to play for any road team, is the only one of 130 FBS programs keeping fans from partaking in games.
"We've had such electric atmospheres really at every game, so this is going to be considerably different,” DeBoer told reporters. “And that's where we need to have a great week of preparation because preparation breeds confidence, (and) confidence brings on the energy that is deep. It can't be this fake energy that all of a sudden comes to life (for the game).”
They had to come to life suddenly last week after a shaky start in a 38-30 rally over the visiting UNLV Rebels. Meanwhile, the Rainbow Warriors (2-3, 0-1) have found life after a 41-21 victory against the host New Mexico State Aggies that halted a two-game losing skid.
Fresno State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 11 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Fresno State -10.5
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Jake Haener is on the Heisman watch. With an FBS-leading 1,842 passing yards and 15 touchdowns while completing 73 percent of his attempts, the senior quarterback has been spectacular.
In last week's come-from-behind win over UNLV, Haener went 30-of-42 for 378 yards and five scores for his third consecutive 300-yard performance.
"His preparation and what he puts into it is a big reason for his success, not just the talent and the group around him,” DeBoer told reporters. “So as long as he does that and keeps staying the course with his preparation, the sky is the limit for him and more great things are gonna happen throughout the year.”
That said, the potent Fresno State attack, which has racked up 522 yards and 42 points per game, could be more proficient. The Bulldogs have stumbled in the red zone a few too many times to be entirely comfortable.
And facing Hawaii, which is prone to giving up yards (423 per game) and points (32 per game), isn’t necessarily the answer these days. The Rainbow Warriors have picked things up on that side of the ball in recent weeks and for the season is holding teams to a 55 percent completion rate.
And Haener has experienced first-hand how difficult it can be to move the ball against Hawaii. He tossed a trio of interceptions in last season's 34-19 home loss.
Leading the Warriors' charge is defensive back Cameron Lockridge, who had seven tackles, an interception, and a scoop-six last week on his way to being named the Mountain West's defensive player of the week.
But Lockridge and company will have their hands full trying to limit Fresno's attack, as Haener doesn't lack for weapons around him. Wide receiver Jalen Cropper is coming off of back-to-back 100-yard games and he's tied for the national lead in both receptions (39) and touchdown catches (8).
The Bulldogs also can run the ball when needed with Ronnie Rivers, who has 346 rushing yards and three scores on 76 carries (4.6 ypc) thus far. Hawaii's run defense has either been stout at times (combined 2.9 ypc in two wins) or entirely too generous (combined 5.9 ypc in losses to UCLA and Oregon State), so Rivers' success or lack thereof on the ground could have a say in the outcome on Saturday night.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Yes, the Rainbow Warriors know how to move the ball, as well. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro has thrown for 1,410 yards and seven TDs, helping Hawaii average 432 total yards per game.
But his six interceptions are at the heart of the team’s biggest challenge — a turnover rate that has seen it give the ball away a Mountain West-high 11 times. It’s part and parcel the reason why the Warriors have managed just 50 points in their three losses.
“It’s not a Chevan problem — it’s a team problem,” Hawaii head coach Todd Graham told reporters. “I’ve been in this game long enough to know when I’ve got a good product. Everyone out here knows that, and our players have a lot of confidence in Chevan.”
But there’s more confidence in the Warriors when it’s not just Cordeiro making things happen. When the running game is in gear, the offense is strong.
Case in point last week when Dedrick Parson had 89 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries — a solid contribution in the road win over New Mexico State. In previous weeks, freshman Dae Dae Hunter has lit a fire in the running game and he leads the team with 257 rushing yards. Cordeiro also can make things happen with his legs, as he's second on the team with 195 yards on the ground.
Then there’s all-purpose threat Calvin Turner Jr., a senior running back who has lined up everywhere offensively, including at the wildcat QB position and as a return man. He catches passes, too — a Hawaii-high 27 for 360 yards. His six total touchdowns (five rushing) are third in the conference.
The other big target for Cordeiro is sophomore receiver Nick Mardner, whose 22 catches have netted him 459 yards (second in Mountain West) and three touchdowns.
The challenge for Hawaii will be to field a balanced offensive attack against Fresno State. The Bulldogs' defense has done a solid job stopping the run this season, complementing the chaos it often causes in the backfield with 41 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
And the Rainbow Warriors' offensive line has stumbled in the trenches, to the tune of 17 sacks allowed. The opposition also has recorded a total of 35 tackles for a loss or seven per game.
That matchup doesn’t bode well considering Fresno State leads the Mountain West is tied for eighth nationally with 15 sacks in five games. The Bulldogs also are giving up 22 points per game compared to Hawaii, who is averaging 28.
The Rainbow Warriors will enjoy the benefit of home-field advantage on Saturday night, which in this case means they already know to handle the quiet confines of their stadium.
So it's possible that Fresno State could lose interest or get distracted without any fans in attendance, but the Bulldogs also have won six in a row in Honolulu.
In the end, look for Haener and the offense to make enough plays to secure a hard-fought victory and improve to 30-23-1 all-time vs. Hawaii.
Prediction: Fresno State 31, Hawaii 30
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