West Coast college football fans will have to be ready bright and early on Saturday as the UConn Huskies will battle it out against the Fresno State Bulldogs to kick off the 2021 season for both teams. It will also be the first-ever meeting between these schools and the first morning kickoff in the history of Bulldog Stadium.
UConn is a bit of a mystery heading into the 2021 season, as the Huskies opted out of playing last fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Head coach Randy Edsall is facing the biggest challenge of his career as he has a team returning to the field that has gone 3-21 over the last two years. The time away allowed the players to focus on handling their business in the weight room and on the practice field without the pressure of the regular season.
Fresno State is coming off a 3-3 season in 2020 under the direction of then-first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer. The Bulldogs bring back a ton of experience, especially on the offensive side of the football led by quarterback Jake Haener, who averaged 336.8 passing yards per game last season. There are plenty of returning weapons for Haener to throw the ball to with Jalen Cropper, Keric Wheatfall, and Josh Kelly all back. Ty Jones will be in the mix as well after transferring in from Washington during the offseason. The offensive line also has plenty of returning experience with nine players in the group who have started at least one game in their career. This unit will have its hands full this week with UConn defensive tackle Travis Jones, an NFL Draft prospect looking to make a statement in front of a national television audience.
UConn at Fresno State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug 28 at 2 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -27.5
When UConn Has the Ball
Kevin Mensah is back at running back for the Huskies, and it would be a wise move on the part of the UConn offensive staff to try and give him 20-25 carries on Saturday. The ability to establish a strong running game this week will allow the Huskies to play keep away from an explosive Fresno State offense. It will also allow the offensive line to establish an identity as a physical unit that took care of business in the weight room since this program needed to close the gap physically across the board. In addition, this untested offensive unit is going to be under fire right away against a Bulldogs team that averaged 4.17 sacks per game in 2020 led by Kwami Jones and Kevin Atkins, who each had five sacks.
The wide receiver unit led by Cameron Ross will need to win the one-on-one battles against a Bulldog secondary that will be looking to be even more physical in 2021. Ross caught 60 passes for 723 yards and four touchdowns during the 2019 season and will be one of the top targets alongside fellow sophomore Matt Drayton. Both will need to get open for quarterback Jack Zergiotis, who needs to make a big leap this season after throwing just nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a freshman back in 2019.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Running back Ronnie Rivers was an unexpected addition to the Bulldogs' offense for the 2021 season after taking advantage of the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. Rivers led the team with 507 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns last season. He is also a threat out of the backfield with 27 receptions for 265 yards and two scores in 2020. Expect to see a healthy dose of Rivers early and often since the Huskies allowed 223.6 rushing yards per game back in 2019, which ranked 123rd overall in the nation.
Improvement on third down in 2021 is going to be crucial in order for the Bulldogs to contend for the Mountain West title. Fresno State converted 43 percent on third down last year. Meanwhile defensively, the Bulldogs allowed teams to convert 48 percent of third-down opportunities. If these two numbers can flip around for Fresno State this fall, the Bulldogs will have a great opportunity to win around nine games and accelerate their return back towards a Top 25-caliber program.
The Bulldogs will have to survive the wave of emotion and excitement that UConn will bring to the table on Saturday. Turnovers will break this game open as the Fresno State defensive front will cause enough pressure to create about three takeaways on Saturday. Offensively, the Bulldogs will overcome an early turnover and end up with at least 35 points to cruise to a comfortable season-opening win.
Prediction: Fresno State 38, UConn 20
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