The Fresno State Bulldogs are set to open Mountain West Conference play on the road against the Nevada Wolf Pack. Fresno State completed a 3-1 record in non-conference play with a dominant 49-27 win over Toledo last week, and also picked up an impressive victory at UCLA in its previous outing. If not for an untimely interception against Minnesota, the Bulldogs might be undefeated and considered among the front-runners to represent the Group of 5 in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Nevada opened league play with a 28-25 win at Air Force last week, which improved its record to 3-2 overall. The Wolf Pack is undefeated at home this season, a 2-0 mark that also includes a victory over a Pac-12 opponent, Oregon State. With Nevada in search of its first bowl game since 2015, a win over the Bulldogs would be a huge boost at the beginning of a brutal stretch of games against arguably the top four contenders in the conference.
Fresno State at Nevada
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -14
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Two of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West are slated to be on display as Fresno State QB Marcus McMaryion and Nevada’s Ty Gangi take turns behind center. However, Gangi is dealing with an leg injury suffered in last week's victory at Air Force and may not play. If Gangi can't go, Cristian Solano will get the start under center.
McMaryion, the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week (and the Week 3 winner as well), has completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns with only two interceptions. The senior has averaged a stellar 8.6 yards per pass, and he has added 50 rushing yards and five scores on the ground.
Gangi has put up more passing yardage (1,332), rushing yardage (126) and touchdown passes (11) than McMaryion. However, Gangi has also completed a lower percentage of his passes (59.0) and has tossed more interceptions (6). Plus, he has thrown at least one pick in every game this season. Nevertheless, the senior is coming off two of his best games of the season: Gangi threw for 320 yards at Toledo two weeks ago, and completed 72.7 percent of his passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns at Air Force last Saturday. Solano has attempted just one pass this season and has just seven career attempts over the last two seasons.
2. Top targets
No quarterback can do it all himself, and fortunately for McMaryion and Gangi, both have solid options at receiver. Fresno State wideout KeeSean Johnson ranks third in the league in receiving (98.5 yards per game) and has hauled in 26 passes for 394 yards and three touchdowns this year overall. A 1,000-yard receiver in 2017, Johnson has shown more big-play ability as a senior, averaging a career-best 15.2 yards per reception so far.
Nevada has two wideouts in the top 10 in the league in receiving. Kaleb Fossum and McLane Mannix both rank No. 9 on the MW leaderboard in receiving with an identical 79.8 yards per game, though the two have been productive in very different ways. Fossum ranks fourth in the conference in receptions (33) but has averaged a modest 12.09 yards per catch and has yet to find the end zone. Meanwhile, the explosive Mannix sits third in the league in both TD grabs (5) and yards per reception (19.0).
3. Best in the (Mountain) West
Both teams have offenses capable of lighting up scoreboards, but only one has a great defense. Fresno State has the best defense in the Mountain West, statistically speaking. The unit leads the league in scoring defense (18.8 ppg), total defense (314.8 ypg) and yards allowed per play (4.82). All three figures rank among the top 30 nationally.
Fresno State has also been aggressive and has made more than its fair share of big plays. The Bulldogs have forced 13 turnovers, which is the most in the conference and most among all teams from Group of 5 conferences, and also ranks third nationally. Anthoula Kelly and Jeff Allison share the team lead with two picks apiece. Kelly took one back for a touchdown, as did defensive lineman Mykal Walker, whose score against Toledo helped him win MWC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Paired with an efficient offense, Fresno State ranks second among all FBS programs in turnover margin per game (2.0).
As the reigning MWC West champions, Fresno State is still the team to beat in the division and is one of the top contenders to win the conference. Nevada has a very good offense, led by Ty Gangi (if he plays), McLane Mannix, Kaleb Fossum and running back Toa Taua, but an inconsistent defense means the Wolf Pack won’t likely challenge for a division crown or conference title. Nevada is a tough out, especially in Reno, but Fresno State has the best defense in the league, and should get the job done.
Prediction: Fresno State 35, Nevada 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of @NevadaFootball)