Mountain West teams looking to stay alive in division races set to face off
Two teams hoping to take one step closer to a bowl game while also staying alive in the Mountain West Conference championship race are scheduled to meet Saturday night in Fresno. The Utah State Aggies, just 4-4 overall following a 42-14 loss to rival BYU last week but 3-1 in conference play, are only one game out of first place in the Mountain Division. The Fresno State Bulldogs, also 4-4 overall but 2-2 in league play after beating Hawaii 41-38 on the road a week ago, are in danger of falling out of the race completely given an earlier loss to West Division leader San Diego State.
Utah State at Fresno State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Fresno State -6
When Utah State Has the Ball
Utah State quarterback Jordan Love has received a lot of attention from pro scouts and talent evaluators and is a candidate to leave college early for the 2020 NFL Draft. However, Love’s numbers have been less than stellar this year. The junior has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,014 yards and nine touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Though he ranks third in the Mountain West and No. 24 nationally in passing offense (251.8 yards per game), Love sits No. 8 in the conference and No. 84 nationally in yards per pass attempt (6.8).
Some of Love’s struggles can be attributed to the personnel losses Utah State suffered following the 2018 season, though the Aggies have developed a solid group of playmakers. Utah transfer Siaosi Mariner leads the receiving corps in every major statistical category, posting 34 receptions, 527 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Love has also spread the ball around well, with five different receivers each hauling in 20 or more passes. Wide receivers Jordan Nathan (28 receptions, 341 yards, 1 TD) and Deven Thompkins (26 receptions, 293 yards, 3 TDs) and tight end Caleb Repp (21 receptions, 252 yards, 2 TDs) make this a deep group.
Running backs Gerold Bright and Jaylen Warren have carried the majority of the load in the running game, with Bright leading the team with 535 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 101 carries. Warren, who has been slowed by injury in recent weeks, ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns in his first five games this year but has been limited to six yards on four carries combined over the last two.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Fresno State QB Jorge Reyna won’t get much attention from scouts, but he has been more consistent than Love in 2019. While Utah State ranks No. 9 in the Mountain West and 68th in the country in yards per play (5.82), the Bulldogs come in at No. 4 in the league and No. 30 overall with an average of 6.31 yards per snap. Reyna has completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 1,843 yards (230.4 per game) and 11 touchdowns with six interceptions, averaging 7.1 yards per pass attempt. He has also contributed 244 rushing yards and two touchdowns, compared to Love’s 80 yards and zero TDs on the ground.
Reyna’s favorite target has been Zane Pope, who leads the Bulldogs with 32 receptions and 336 yards but has just one touchdown catch. Wideout Derrion Grim (17 receptions, 289 yards) and tight end Jared Rice (17 receptions, 125 yards) share the team lead with three touchdowns, and Keric Wheatfall (10 receptions, 229 yards) is a big-play threat (22.9 yards per catch).
Fresno State has been even better running the football. In fact, the Bulldogs lead the Mountain West in rushing yards per carry (5.45), which ranks 13th nationally. Ronnie Rivers has been the primary weapon on the ground and leads the team with 553 yards and shares the team lead with Josh Hokit (213 rushing yards) with eight rushing touchdowns. Receiver Jalen Cropper has been a huge asset in the rushing attack, having gained 326 yards with two touchdowns on only 16 attempts — an incredible 20.38 yards per carry, primarily on jet sweeps.
Fresno State posted very impressive results on defense in 2018 and ranked among the top 20 nationally in several major statistical categories, including a No. 16 finish in yards allowed per play (4.73). However, the 2019 Bulldogs have taken a big step back, having surrendered 5.56 yards per snap, which currently ranks No. 66 in the country. Against Mountain West competition, that number has jumped to 6.12.
Utah State, meanwhile, has allowed just 4.81 yards per play in Mountain West games this season, which shows an improvement over its overall average of 5.48, but it's a move in the wrong direction compared to the 5.00 the Aggies allowed in 2018. Making matters worse, the Aggies will play the rest of this season without linebacker and All-America candidate David Woodward, who leads the conference with 93 total tackles and has recorded 5.0 tackles for a loss, 2.0 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown.
In a matchup of two motivated and evenly matched teams, consistency is key. Fresno State, which also has the home-field advantage playing in the Valley, has been the more consistent team this year. And given Love’s regression and Woodward’s absence, the Bulldogs have the best chance of winning.
Prediction: Fresno State 31, Utah State 20
(Top photo courtesy of Utah State Athletics)